Sunday, October 22, 2017

Our Writer on Meeting his Hero of Fiction, George Saunders

George Saunders

Our Writer on Meeting his Hero of Fiction, George Saunders

When Greg Hudson makes a pilgrimage to his hero of fiction, all the turns in his own story start to make sense


George Saunders, author and MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellow, smiles politely when I show him a picture of my dog. He only looks mildly uncomfortable when I tell him that my dog’s name is Saunders. Named, of course, after him. I can imagine the discrete calculations he’s making in his head: total time he’s committed to this meeting, multiplied by his inherent generosity, divided (suddenly) by my uncomfortable hero worship. “Oh,” he says, “well, thank you.” It’s as if he’s never talked to someone who’s named their dog after him before.
This is happening at a sushi restaurant near the campus of Syracuse University, where Saunders—the author, not my dog—teaches creative writing. This is months before his book, Tenth of December, would be published, and months before the New York Times Magazine would predict that it would be the best book you (yes, you!) would read this year. It is, in fact, before we’ve received our avocado salads and sushi. He’s devoted much of his day to me. Before this, he let me sit in on one of his classes. We discussed a Margaret Atwood story. Or, the class did. I sat with my arms crossed, supremely envious. After this, we’ll go to his office for a proper interview, ostensibly for Sharp, the magazine that is my day job, but I have ulterior motives. Right now, I am attempting to make small talk over lunch with my hero. He has dogs, too.

This is not something that happens every day.

George Saunders writes short stories. He is one of about two authors (that I can think of) who earn a living this way. “The book is actually selling,” Saunders will later tell me in a follow-up email, after I send him the article I’ve written for Sharp. For any book, let alone a book of short stories, that’s something. But it isn’t surprising.
His stories will change you. With their inspired, loopy language and their twisted, funny and bleak futurescapes, they will make you feel the head-shaking, sad absurdity of our modern, materialistic, corporate-owned world as if for the first time. But, at the same time, you will want to be more interested, more human, better. It’s a contradictory feat; Saunders can make you see the darkness humans have wrought while reminding you of our potential. This was true of his three previous short story collections and his book of essays, but it’s especially true with Tenth of December. It’s a book of modern parables, each a warning and a consolation: Here is how life will knock you down, and here is how to push back against the blows.
Maybe it’s because I, unjustifiably, often feel knocked about by the world that I took so quickly to his writing. Maybe that’s why so many have. But somehow, Saunders took on a greater importance to me than your Jonathan Franzens or Michael Chabons. It’s why, in addition to talking to him as a journalist should—about inspiration, the craft, how he writes—I’ve come to talk to him about life. His life. And mine.
But first, some heartwarming background.
The best gift I’ve ever received came from Nicole. That Christmas, she was my girlfriend. And like all good girlfriends, she had a keen knowledge of my interests—though I’ve never been the type to keep my passions a mystery. Still, her present was miraculous.
She had hyped it up impossibly. Unwrapping it, I silently rehearsed the enthusiastic reception that seemed to be required, even as I doubted any gift could warrant it, or that I would be up to the acting challenge so early in the morning, in front of so many eager faces.
There were seven books in all. Saunders had written a small message in each of them. Some were English editions of his books that hadn’t been printed in Canada, others were from France and Italy. There was a card (written in Nicole’s hand, but from Saunders) that said if I would send him some of my writing, he’d read it and provide notes, and that if I wanted to, I’d be welcome to visit him in Syracuse, N.Y., to sit in on one of his M.F.A. classes. There was a note, too, about how obviously lucky I was to be loved by Nicole.
I couldn’t say anything except to ask Nicole how she did this. I started crying. How did she do it?
All I gave her that year was an engagement ring.
Saunders is clearly a sucker for, if not romance, then love. “We’ve been in contact before, right?” he asks while we’re walking to the sushi place. I’m impressed. The Christmas gift—which came about via an email from Nicole— was nearly two years ago, and it is nearly that long since he read the short story I’d sent, and dutifully sent back notes. This visit isn’t technically part of the gift—it was set up through publicists and publishers, the way interviews are—but, it kind of is. He remembered me. And Nicole. “And your wife’s emails were just so loving,” he says.
My marriage is on my mind while I’m talking to him. It’s the ulterior motive. This trip is for my job, but it’s also a pilgrimage. There’s something transcendent about heroes.
There is the hope— and, like all hope, it’s so, so fragile— that from the pedestal we’ve built and put them on, that from that height, these heroes will know more, not just about their respective fields (writing, dancing, scoring touchdowns), but about life. Or, maybe that’s just true of Saunders, whose stories are full of struggling men trying desperately— against a heartless society and their own limited abilities—to care for their families, their precarious relationships. In his stories, that means dark stuff: spending all of their money to buy four foreign girls as lawn ornaments to keep up with the neighbours, for example.
So, while it may be a stretch (and it certainly isn’t what Random House’s publicist had in mind), I want Saunders to give me marital advice. The first year of marriage is the hardest, they say, but some of those first-year challenges seem to be awfully resilient. Put simply: I feel alone a lot. It’s not a word I imagined I’d associate with marriage. And since Saunders has accidentally worked himself into the short mythos of mine, it seems only right to seek wisdom from him. Because he just seems to have it.

One of the things I love about his books are his acknowledgments to his wife, Paula. They are perfect nuggets of gratitude, sincerity and love. (For example, from his book of essays, The Braindead Megaphone: “Paula, Paula, Paula. Odd to thank the air one breathes, but crazy not to,” or from Tenth of December: “Paula: …Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something really freaking good.”)
“I’m going to do a whole book of those,” he says in his (I’ll say it) adorable Chicago accent. So, I ask him about his marriage. He tells me it’s a mystery, that they met at Syracuse as students and were engaged after three weeks. “It sounded crazy to everyone else, too. But not to us. She said, ‘If we date, we’re probably going to break up, right?’ and I said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘So, why don’t we just get married?’” So they did.
Honestly? I had hoped that he would say something about how marriage was a bitter struggle, but that those dedications in his books were evidence of the fruit of all the hardship. See, I’d think, and I’d feel like rough marital waters are not only normal, but they create artists. But no.
“I think we’re just really suited to each other,” he says. “I really care what she thinks, more than I care about anyone else’s opinion. I think it’s mostly that I’m really fascinated by her, and continue to be, and really want her approval.”
And I’ll just let him say this bit, because in his syntax, there’s something incredibly earnest and true; it’s evidence that the person who writes with such heart has an incredibly large one: “The funny thing, it’s kind of weird, because it does make you think that there is something that goes beyond this life. Because to say I want somebody’s approval, you think, ‘Really? Can’t you think for yourself?’ but with her, when I get into a situation where I’m somewhat lacking, what she thinks is best, and if I improve it, I really improve as a person. And this is true in my writing. Because my standard is always, ‘Does it move her?’ If I write something and it moves her, then I know I’ve done my best work. And so it’s almost like she somehow pre-existed to bring me up to speed, and I think she’d say the same thing. And it hasn’t always been peace and calm, we had a lot of challenges from the beginning but, always I’ve felt that the parts of me that needed improving were exactly the parts of her that I could model myself on, and just come up, you know—and writing is one. I just wasn’t rigorous enough. And I never started moving her until I became rigorous.” He says, “It’s really cool. And very nice.”
It’s also, of course, what I probably need to hear.
My life can be broken down into a series of mild obsessions. They are as well-defined in my personal history as presidential administrations are for Americans. Example: I may have been the only straight Edmontonian male to openly worship Robbie Williams, Michael Jackson and (oddly) Pierre Trudeau in high school (odd since I graduated from high school in 2001). I even thanked all three in my graduation quote. When Trudeau died, classmates stopped me in the hallway to offer condolences.
This is something men do. We pick people to live through, to emulate, to honour. Who we choose says something about us. It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to figure out that a 15-year-old Mormon kid infatuated with the alcoholic, drug-addicted, Lothario Robbie Williams maybe felt a little restricted? When I believed in God and followed the tenets of my religion, my heroes were noticeably, cartoonishly arrogant and egotistical. Now that I don’t, my hero is noticeably, cartoonishly kinder.
After the restaurant, we’re in Saunders’ office. It has cathedral-high ceilings and bookcases lining one of the walls. On one, there is a framed picture of him meeting Nelson Mandela. Former president Bill Clinton is in the picture, too (Saunders wrote a piece for GQ about Clinton and his work to support the AIDS fight in Africa). I notice that, since then, Saunders has subtly, but successfully, updated his look. In the photo, his clothes are looser, ill-fitting. He shares the same sartorial affect as many authors who remind you, slightly, of home-schooled children. Now, he’s got a kind of college-town version of a lumberjack look going on: a long-sleeved shirt underneath a light plaid button-up and suitably modern khakis. His glasses are on trend: thicker, more intentional. His beard has grown out. He’s doing a blown back thing with what is, frankly, a risky hairline. It works.
What I’m also thinking, while I’m adjudicating his style: This is George Freaking Saunders! He met Mandela and Clinton. I’m thinking of how Saunders’s humanism spoke to a specific hunger in me. I knew, of course, growing up a Latter-day Saint that Mormonism didn’t hold a monopoly on goodness. I understood that non-religious people could be kind and thoughtful, even, dare I say, gracious or Christlike. But, it’s this (and I don’t think it has anything to do with my specific religious history): when the entirety of your life experience is filtered through a certain world view, when you model your life after the apostles, say, or from people in The Book of Mormon, when you take comfort from Christ, when you understand everyday problems according to doctrine—when that world view is shaken, it can leave you unmoored. You don’t doubt the morals you learned, but where are the narratives to reinforce them? Somehow, having his stories as secular parables surprised and comforted me.
When I tell him this, he seems about as comfortable as he was upon learning that somewhere in Toronto there is a small mammal named after him. “But I think you have to be careful,” he says, leaning back. At this point we’ve been talking for close to an hour. “Because fiction looks like a moral system, but it really isn’t. Fiction, when you think about it, what is it? It’s me making up shit. And then seeing it through to its conclusion in such a way that it seems to say something about the real world. That’s sort of an illusion,” he says.
It’s a plausible clarification, but as he goes on, it’s as if he realizes it’s not necessarily true. He mentions Chekhov, an inspiration and neer for a big corporation. And he a fellow writer he gets compared to often, and how, well, he feels morally uplifted after reading him and his Russian compatriots. It’s not that fiction can’t provide that moral guidance, it’s that he doesn’t feel comfortable being the source.
But he’s also a father, which means he’s not that uncomfortable being the source. Some people, whether they have children or not, talk like a dad: kind of goofy, kind of sincere, full of analogies, advice, patience. “I have a lot of time for people. I don’t know what it is. I don’t always like them, but they’re interesting to me. Sometimes we seek intellectual reasons, but some things are just dispositional,” he says. “I’m not really nice. I’m interested. And I think niceness for me is a way of coping with the un-niceness. If you feel dark tendencies, one responsible decision is to work clipping out the surface manifestations of your not-niceness so they’ll atrophy. That’s the conscious decision.”
And, because I’m feeling his interest—or at least his conscious decision to be nice—I ask him about my job as an editor at a men’s magazine. It’s couched in a question about consumerism and advertising (a frequent subtext in his stories is the encroach of consumer capitalism), but it’s really Greg asking Mr. Saunders how I can be happy in a job that is, finally, all about getting people to buy shit.
“Because it’s human activity and it’s beautiful,” he says. “The first exit is that ‘Commercials are Bad,’ And that’s true, that’s an obvious truth. They are jerking us around, no question. But you can stay on the highway a little longer and say, and yet! The holy words: on the other hand. They’re kind of beautiful, I cried at that Coke commercial. What the fuck, you know. On the other hand, that’s an even higher form of manipulation. True. On the other hand…” And he trails off.
Before Saunders became Saunders—and actually part of the reason he is able to write the way he does—he worked as an engineer for a big corporation. And he didn’t hate it.
“As someone who has to do it, yeah, it’s not holy in a way,” he continues. “And you won’t be doing it forever. But also, I would say that you are on the inside of it. For a novelist or whatever, it’s cool to be inside the beast a little bit, to look around and maybe see the beast is kind of friendly.”
I feel like I should thank him for the talk—especially the part where he implies I’m something more than I am now. I feel like I should pat him on the shoulder on my way up to my room.
I can’t kick the notion that none of this is relevant to anyone but me. I have a hero. I met that hero. And, contrary to the popular notion, it didn’t leave me disillusioned at all. Yes, it humanized the guy—you suddenly remember authors are real people when you’re telling them about your dog and hearing about their kids—but my admiration could take that.
Sweet story, but does it matter to anyone else?
I suppose this is the central question of fiction. Especially the kind of fiction that George Saunders writes, stuff concerned with goodness and morality, and saving people’s lives. The power of fiction is that we get to answer: It can matter! It does! We can read about a young boy trying to save a man bent on freezing to death, only to have the man turn around and save the young boy, like in the title story of Tenth of December, and we can decide to have that affect us. More than affect us: encourage us, edify us, remind us of something higher than ourselves, as stories in scripture encourage and edify believers.
And maybe you can read about a young man who has questions about whether he’ll ever not feel alone in his marriage, or ambivalent about his job or his life, and you can see how he learns that his hero is every bit as good as his writing, and that perspective might change his mood, and that good men exist. You can decide what that means.

Empathetic and Fierce / An Evening with George Saunders

George Saunders

Empathetic and Fierce: An Evening with George Saunders

The 100 best novels No 8 / Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)

The 100 best novels: No 8 – Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)

The eighth title in our chronological series, Mary Shelley's first novel has been hailed as a masterpiece of horror and the macabre

Robert McCrum
Monday 11 November 2013 07.00 GMT

he summer of 1816 was a washout. After the cataclysmic April 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa, part of what is now Indonesia, the world's weather turned cold, wet and miserable. In a holiday villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, a young English poet and his lover, the guests of another poet, discouraged from outdoor pursuits, sat discussing the hideousness of nature and speculating about the fashionable subject of "galvanism". Was it possible to reanimate a corpse?

The villa was Byron's. The other poet was Shelley. His future wife, 19-year-old Mary Shelley (nee Godwin), who had recently lost a premature baby, was in distress. When Byron, inspired by some fireside readings of supernatural tales, suggested that each member of the party should write a ghost story to pass the time, there could scarcely have been a more propitious set of circumstances for the creation of the gothic and romantic classic called Frankenstein, the novel that some claim as the beginnings of science fiction and others as a masterpiece of horror and the macabre. Actually, it's both more and less than such labels might suggest.

At first, Mary Shelley fretted about meeting Byron's challenge. Then, she said, she had a dream about a scientist who "galvanises" life from the bones he has collected in charnel houses: "I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion."
The scientist Victor Frankenstein, then, is the author of the monster that has come in popular culture to bear his name. Frankenstein's story – immortalised in theatre and cinema – is framed by the correspondence of Captain Robert Walton, an Arctic explorer who, having rescued the unhappy scientist from the polar wastes, begins to record his extraordinary story. We hear how the young student Victor Frankenstein tries to create life: "By the glimmer of the half-extinguished light," he says, "I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs."

Unforgettably, Frankenstein has unleashed forces beyond his control, setting in motion a long and tragic chain of events that brings him to the brink of madness. Finally, Victor tries to destroy his creation, as it destroys everything he loves, and the tale becomes a story of friendship, hubris and horror. Frankenstein's narration, the core of Shelley's tale, culminates in the scientist's desperate pursuit of his monstrous creation to the North Pole. The novel ends with the destruction of both Frankenstein and his creature, "lost in darkness".
The subtitle of Frankenstein is "the modern Prometheus", a reference to the Titan of Greek mythology who was first instructed by Zeus to create mankind. This is the dominant source in a book that is also heavily influenced by Paradise Lost and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Mary Shelley, whose mother was the champion of women's rights, Mary Wollstonecraft, also makes frequent reference to ideas of motherhood and creation. The main theme of the book, however, is the ways in which man manipulates his power, through science, to pervert his own destiny.

Plainly, Frankenstein is rather different from, and much more complex than, its subsequent reinterpretations. The first reviews were mixed, attacking what one called a "disgusting absurdity". But the archetypal story of a monstrous, supernatural creation (cf Bram Stoker's Dracula, Wilde's Dorian Gray and Stevenson's Jekyll & Hyde) instantly caught readers' imaginations. The novel was adapted for the stage as early as 1822 and Walter Scott saluted "the author's original genius and happy power of expression". It has never been out of print; a new audiobook version, read by Dan Stevens, has just been released by Audible Inc, a subsidiary of Amazon.
A Note on the Text:
The first edition of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was published anonymously in three volumes by Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones on 1 January 1818. A second edition appeared in 1822 to cash in on the success of a stage version, Presumption. A third edition, extensively revised, came out in 1831. Here, Mary Shelley pays touching tribute to her late husband, "my companion who, in this world, I shall never see more", and reveals that the first preface to the novel was actually written by Shelley himself. This is the text that is usually followed today.

Other Mary Shelley titles:
The Last Man, a dystopia, published in 1826, describes England as a republic and has the human race being destroyed by plague. Shelley also explores the theme of the noble savage in Lodore (1835). Her children's story Maurice, written in 1820, was rediscovered in 1997 and republished in 1998.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Game of Thrones' Lena Headey claims she was harassed by Harvey Weinstein, accuses Terry Gilliam of 'bullying'

Lena Heady

Game of Thrones' Lena Headey claims she was harassed by Harvey Weinstein, accuses Terry Gilliam of 'bullying'

Harvey Weinstein made repeated sexual advances towards Game of Thrones star Lena Headey that left her feeling "powerless", the actress has claimed in a statement released on Twitter.

The 100 best novels No 7 / Emma by Jane Austen (1816)

The 100 best novels

No 7


by Jane Austen 


Jane Austen's Emma is her masterpiece, mixing the sparkle of her early books with a deep sensibility

Robert McCrum
Monday 4 November 2013 07.01 GMT

ow on earth to choose just one Jane Austen novel? Austen, for some, is simply the supreme English novelist, on any list. Some will say: she is the greatest. Nominate all six, from Pride and Prejudice on. But the rules of our selection only allow one title per author: there has to be a choice. So, to represent her fiction here, I've chosen Emma for three particular reasons.
First, it's my personal favourite, a mature and brilliant comedy of manners (and much more besides) completed towards the end of her life. Second, published by John Murray, Emma takes us into a new literary landscape, the beginnings of a book world that lingers unto the 21st century. And third, most importantly of all, Austen's last novel has the sparkle of early books such as Pride and Prejudice, mixed with a sharper and deeper sensibility. There's no accounting for taste: I simply prefer it to the others.
Emma was written in a white heat – according to the scholars – between 21 January 1814 and 29 March 1815 (the year of Waterloo), and it comes as the climax to a remarkable period of intense creativity. Pride and Prejudice (whose first draft, "First Impressions", was written in 1796-7) had been published in 1813, Mansfield Park in 1814. Austen's work was becoming something of a cult, and she was aware of her audience. Indeed, the Prince Regent was a fan (Emma is dedicated to him). Austen must have been conscious that she was no longer writing just for herself. She was at the peak of her powers, yet had less than two years to live. All this, I think, gives Emma an added depth as the final flowering of a great artist and her work.

Gwyneth Paltrow and Toni Collette in Emma (1996)
'The novel is supremely English – in character, landscape, sensibility and wit.'
Photograph: Allstar/ Cinetext/ Miramax

The novelist herself is highly conscious of her art. Emma, she wrote to a friend, is "a heroine whom no one but myself will much like". Perhaps. However, compared with her other heroines – Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny Price, Anne Elliot, and Catherine Morland – Emma is the most complex, subtle and complete. Yes, she is "handsome, clever and rich". But she's only 21 and will be sent on the familiar Austen cycle of wrong-headedness, remorse, repentance and ultimate self-realisation (with Mr Knightley) in a far deeper way than her predecessors.
Emma represents mature Austen in another way, too. She has perfected the art of free indirect speech to convey the inner life of her heroine while retaining her control of the narrative as the omniscient author. Light and shade are expertly and satisfyingly in harmony, and the novel's deceptively simple plot is spun into so much teasing variety, through games, letters and riddles – the book is exceedingly playful – that the reader is never less than fully engaged, even charmed. Then there's Austen's mature delight in her milieu. She herself famously wrote that "three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on", and Emma's Highbury exemplifies this credo. Here, fully in command of her genre, Austen revels in her characters and their foibles. Mr Woodhouse, Mr and Mrs Elton, poor Miss Bates, Jane Fairfax and her fiance, deceitful Frank Churchill and, of course, noble Mr Knightley – these are among the most vivid and universal characters in English fiction, as real to us as Pickwick or Jeeves.

Emma herself is endlessly fascinating, a woman to whom the reader returns again and again for the seductive intimacy of her thoughts, a secret communion that's braided with the lesson that self-knowledge is a mystery, vanity the source of the worst pain, and the subconscious a treacherous and imperfect instrument in the management of the psyche. You can object that Emma is a lady and a snob, but she also makes a timeless appeal to the reader's better nature.
Austen seems to have known that she was working on something special. Mansfield Park had been published by Thomas Egerton. This time, however, she wanted better terms and more literary prestige. There was only one address for that: 50 Albemarle Street, Mayfair. She approached John Murray, Byron's publisher, offering her new manuscript. Murray accepted at once and his edition appeared in December 1815, after a trouble-free editorial process in which her new publisher made a point of treating her with the greatest respect, though author and publisher never actually met.
Emma occupies a special place in this list because it is supremely English – in character, landscape, sensibility and wit. It's provincial, opaque, sparkling and wonderfully optimistic while being at the same time tinged with intimations of sorrow and mortality. In the end, it answers Jane Austen's own high-spirited prescription for the novel, expressed in Northanger Abbey: "in short, only some work in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language".

A Note on the Text:
There was just one text prepared in Austen's lifetime, the John Murray edition, dated 1816, though it was actually published in three volumes in December 1815. No manuscript survives. Subsequent editions, notably by RW Chapman, have made silent corrections to typographical errors, but no substantial emendations. Emma has been continuously in print since its first publication: that's one definition of a classic.
Other Austen Titles:
Sense and Sensibility (1811); Pride and Prejudice (1813); Mansfield Park (1814); Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, published posthumously in 1817.

'In America, art is a freaky side show' / George Saunders on the Man Booker Prize and a divided America

Georges Saunders
Poster by T.A.

'In America, art is a freaky side show': George Saunders on the Man Booker Prize and a divided America

"There's a sense that art is a freaky side show," says George Saunders.
It’s 9am in a central London hotel and George Saunders is looking remarkably chipper for someone who has had four hours sleep and, thanks to jet lag, only two and a half the night before. On Tuesday evening the Texas-born writer won the Booker Prize for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo, and the party at his publishers went on until 2.30am. Did he cut loose?