Age, occupation, where are you from, where do you live now?
46, Teacher/writer, from Chicago, now living in Syracuse, where I teach in the MFA Creative Writing Program.
Have you ever lived in NYC? Where and when?
I’ve lived in NYC twice: 1) Two summers ago, courtesy of some dear friends, on the Upper East Side, who let us stay with them while our daughter attended the Barnard pre-college program; and 2) A few years from now, in the future, when I have become a wealthy doddering old fart/former writer, who can finally afford to live in NY, and who dodders from bookstore to bookstore, talking about the glory days and harrumphing out again when the bastards don’t have my books in stock.
The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil is, like any good satire, funny, sharp, critical, and a little bit angry. You take aim at the government, politics, war, the media, and so on--but were there any specific events that fueled the book's writing?
My approach is usually not to pick one particular thing or person or tendency to satirize, but rather to goof around with a suite of tendencies. So when I was writing The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil I kept trying to change the conceptual framework — at different points, Phil meant different things to me and I had different historical referents in mind. Likewise the other elements of the story; Inner Horner was sometimes Palestine, sometimes Israel, sometimes Rwandans, sometimes Stalin-era Russians, etc etc. My hope was that, by constantly switching out the core referent, the book might come to be more about a general human tendency than a particular incarnation of it...kind of answering the questions: Is there something in all of us that drives us to simplify, then murder, our ‘enemies?’ If so, what does it look like, in miniature? What are the connections between this tendency and ego, or neediness, or paucity?
I think this issue has been a bone of contention for some reviewers, who mistake the above-described approach for imprecision — that is, the book maybe seemed to them like a highly inefficient, even unfair, critique of the Iraq war, or post-9/11 America, or whatever. (Or a critique that lacked sufficient cajones). But I started this way back in 1999, with Rwanda and Bosnia in mind. Then came 9/11 and Iraq and Abu Ghraib. And many of the things that might make a reader think of the Bush administration (the stolen Presidency, the jangled syntax, the Patriot Act-reminiscent “Loyalty Oath,” the stripping and humiliation of prisoners) were all written before Bush was even elected. (I feel like I have written more direct satires of the current state of things— particularly in the story “Adams,” which was in The New Yorker awhile back, and the story “Brad Carrigan, American,” from Harpers, and in the screenplay for CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.)
My hope is that, as the current dust settles, the book will seem more and more like what I had in mind for it — a fable about power, and about our tendency to divide the world into Us and Them, after which we immediately start trying to objectify the Them, so we can kill them. Sadly, this doesn’t seem like a tendency that’s going to vanish any time soon.
Reign of Phil is a skinny novella, though you've said it at one point swelled to 300 pages. Your other books are collections of shorter works—do you think you'll ever write a full-length novel? Do you usually intend to write short works, or do you not think lengthwise?
I guess I think a given story has a kind of DNA — the tone dictates the eventual length. A quirky idea like the Phil idea probably isn’t meant to go 400 pages. I’d like to write a novel, I suppose, but my approach so far is just to find something that interests me, and see how much weight it will bear. Generally, the answer is: Not much. The ideas that interest me are generally “fast-twitch” ideas — they are like those little wind-up toys, which, wound up, then quickly go right under the couch. That’s an aesthetic I understand. So if a novel someday comes, and it’s long, and substantial, and wins all kinds of prizes, and gets me on Oprah, and I finally get that Malibu beach house I’ve always — sorry...got a little ahead of things there.
You've stated you wrote the book after being challenged by Lane Smith to write something starring shapes as characters. Can you explain how that happened? Would Phil have worked if it were set in the "real" world?
Hmm. Well, in this case, the challenge led to the tone of the book — I initially meant for it to be for kids. Then, the challenge led to a kind of linguistic flatness — the story that I was initially writing had a lot of, you know: “Then the Orange Square said to the Yellow Parallelogram...” So somehow, in the process of trying to jar the story out of this tone, I started adding some non-flat elements (talking tuna fish cans, etc). And then Phil showed up, and (I suspect also in order to jangle up the language a bit) began talking, in adult diction, about decidedly non-kid-book things. And the story seemed more interesting with this talking than without it. So suddenly I had a kid’s book about genocide. As they used to say on cartoons: Wah, wah. But somehow I liked the tone — the way that the tone kind of got strained and uncomfortable with itself as Phil got meaner. For me, it became kind of metaphorical for the way that real-life conventions — our everyday assumptions of normalcy and “shared human values” don’t hold up — i.e., aren’t useful — when the angels of our worse nature start circling.
So — would it have worked in the “real world?” I don’t know. I mean, it would have had to be set in a particular place, at a particular time which, for me, then imbues it with a kind of overall particularity that would then undercut the elements of the book that I really enjoyed doing — the goofy, invented things: the former President, the Special Friends, etc. Although sure, I could imagine a story about a genocide happening in the U.S., a few years from now... it’s actually something I’m very interested in: this question of, if there was ever an American genocide, who would be doing the killing? What extant tendencies would it erupt out of? Who would be the voices of reason? I kind of played with this in an earlier novella, called Bounty, where the world is divided into Flaweds and Normals, and slavery of the Flaweds is legal, etc...
One of the stories Reign of Phil reminded me of was Edwin Abbott's Flatland, also a sci-fi-like fable using shapes with personalities to satirize society. Was it an influence on your writing? What other books were?
Yes, I did read this, and loved it. And actually, just after I started writing the book (i.e., at the Mr Yellow Triangle stage, described above), I realized that I was re-writing Flatland, which seemed unnecessary, given that the original was 1) done, and 2) excellent. So that was one of the factors that drove me out of 2-D and into the more 3-D Horner reality of creatures that were part mechanical, part human, part vegetable, etc.
For this book, I think the biggest influences were Dr Seuss (The Sneetches, maybe, or The Butter Battle Book) and Monty Python (Holy Grail, in particular)— I love the way, in these two, that gross silliness is used to house very serious matters. And also the playfulness, the simplicity, the kind of anti-literary defiance that ends up being very literary. And Beckett, especially Waiting for Godot — that sense of things happening in the middle of nowhere, in this kind of iconic world.
Do you think more books should have promotional T-shirts and tattoos?
No. I think only mine should. Because then it would, you know, sell more. At least that’s my feeling. Other writers may feel differently about what would most efficiently sell my book.
What's the best thing you've read lately? The most recent?
I just read and loved A Problem from Hell, by Samantha Powers. Beautiful and terrific, with this quality of coming out of deep apolitical wisdom, fearless and prophetic. It kind of indicts both sides of the American political spectrum, and reminded me that when someone does enough research, and is honest enough, all dogma dies away, and only the truth is left. She is the contemporary Hannah Arendt. And I’ve just started the Martin Amis book on Stalin. I am kind of on a genocidal kick. Also read the wonderful Chris Hedges book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Hmm. Maybe I should read something lighter, like Revelations.
What do you make of your fansite, GeorgeSaundersLand.com?
I’m grateful for it. The woman who runs it, Carol Carpenter, is a total mensch, who does it all single-handedly. It really means a lot to me that someone would care enough to run it, and that people would care enough to go to it.
Pastoralia was very recently adapted and performed at P.S. 122. What was that experience like for you?
I loved it. I went to see it towards the end of the run with my wife and our oldest daughter. The director (Yehuda Duenyas) wrote a fantastic adaptation and persevered over, I think, three or four years to get it done. And the actors were astonishing. To me, it was an example of a perfect adaptation: I had this weird reaction at the end, where I kind of rocketed back to the feelings I had when I first finished writing the story. So I was very, very pleased and gratified. Although the adaptation was so excellent that it was actually kind of strange/spooky, to hear these very personal, odd, speeches and see these settings that had started out from a bad dream I once had — it was like re-entering that dream…. I halfway expected to find myself suddenly watching the play naked, not having studied for a big test.
You're writing the screenplay for CivilWarLand. Could you tell us about that process and experience?
Sure. Around 1997 I got a note from Ben Stiller, asking if he could option the story. A few weeks later he came out, with Owen Wilson, and we all went to see the model for that story, a place called the Genesee Country Museum, in Rochester. Over the next few years, Ben had a screenplay written, then asked me to comment on it. I had some comments and, during that conversation, he asked if I’d like to try a draft. So I did that, and now Ben’s company is in the development process with it.
It was artistically about as much fun as I’ve ever had — I don’t do much collaboration but this one was a riot. I’d write a draft and the Ben and his producing partner, Stuart Cornfeld, would give me notes on it, or we’d talk in the phone. They were so great about keeping true to the spirit of the story — a couple times I went overboard on things I thought would be cinematic (car chases, too much violence, etc.) and they would gently rein me in, and remind me of the story itself. They are also great readers, great editors — so I learned a ton about screenplay economy, comedy writing etc. It has just been a wild opportunity to learn about screenwriting, of course, but also, somehow, about expansiveness. Since film is very much a realist mode — you see actual people talking, walking around, etc. — it forced me to write scenes that, in fiction, I might avoid — simple domestic scenes, for example, scenes that show actual love and tenderness, in real-time. These things kind of scare me in fiction. I’m afraid they’ll produce bland prose. But in film, you have to dwell there a little, if you want to have real emotion later on. The other thing I learned had to do with structure — in fiction, the questions of whether a scene is structurally viable are all tied up with the actual prose quality — I don’t know if something is meant to happen until I polish the writing. But in film you can just say something happens, and it’s the director’s job to show it happening — so in a sense, you’re free to think a little more energetically/restlessly about structure. You want ten thousand tap-dancing penguins? Just say it.
You teach writing at Syracuse University--what have you learned from your students?
It’s a great program — we fund everybody (no tuition, stipends for all) and so there’s a really generous communal feeling here. The main thing I learn from my students, over and over, is that there is a core of people in the world who thrive on the written word and that these people are some of the most generous, funny, and kind people on the planet. Somehow this makes being a writer more exciting to me — to know that there is this sort of brilliant subspecies who absolutely live for the written word. It ennobles the whole process. And to be in touch, every day, with their love and enthusiasm for the word, and watch them struggling and sometimes triumphing in this very difficult endeavor — is a real blessing. In short, being around them gives me hope.
What New York thing do you wish you could bring upstate? What element of Syracuse could New Yorkers really use?
I’d have to say the subway, Central Park, and Balthazar. Also, all the buildings. And all the doormen. How about my hero, Art Spiegelman? You might as well throw in the bridges, Madison Avenue — actually, you know what? We’ll take it all, the whole beautiful thing. When do you think it will arrive? We’ll have to make some room.
Any advice for Mayor Bloomberg?
Yes. When you send the entire City up here, please send it FedEx, no signature required. Thank you, Mister Mayor.