Encore: Author George Saunders on his new book, 'Liberation Day: Stories'
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
It's a daunting task to be George Saunders' next book, to live up to the greatness that came before. But "Liberation Day" stands up to its predecessors. It is a short story collection that explores everything from misunderstandings to love affairs to lobotomized actors pinned to a wall and forced to perform all kinds of crazy stuff.
George Saunders, welcome.
GEORGE SAUNDERS: Oh, it's so nice to be here. Thank you.
KELLY: Let's dive right in with that title story, "Liberation Day." It's the longest story in the collection. I got to say it's the strangest. This is the dystopian one starring characters who have had their memories mysteriously removed. Explain what's going on and why you wanted to start there.
SAUNDERS: Yeah. I had to laugh when you described it that way because I thought, oh, that sounds so dark.
KELLY: It was kind of dark.
SAUNDERS: Yeah, it's dark. I don't know. It just was sort of a flash onto the idea of using - almost using a person like a stereo by taking the person's innate verbal abilities and then doing something to them technologically to ramp that up. So they're much more articulate. They have a certain sort of tone in their voice that makes you want to listen to them. And so then, you know, you're the person who produces that idea. And for a second you go, just suppress that. That's too weird, you know?
SAUNDERS: And then, if you're me, you say, well, yeah, it is weird. And you probably should suppress it. But what if...
SAUNDERS: ...You know, you just abided with this thing for six or seven months to see if what started out as crazy could eventually be made to reach out to the reader? You know, since so many of the things that we go through in this life are inexplicable, is there any way I could take this crazy idea and, through my attention and my, you know, even love, make it such that, when Mary Louise reads it, it actually speaks to her in some way that surprises her?
SAUNDERS: That's the whole game, you know?
KELLY: Well, if that was the goal, you succeeded. It did totally surprise me. And I guess part of the process for you - is it trying to figure out if this crazy voice has something to say, something that needs to be said that you can't say in any other way?
SAUNDERS: Yes, that's the assumption. And then the first step is to say, well, who is this guy? Why is he talking so strangely? Who put him here, you know? And as you answer those questions, you're also doing the work of assuaging the reader's anxiety because I'm sure you had the same kind of questions. You know, what's going on here? So for me, it's kind of become, first, try to fool myself or try to confuse myself so I don't really know what the story means to be about and I don't know what world we're in. Then over the months, as I figure it out, the assumption is that that's comforting to you, too, as the eventual reader. And so in a sense, we're both in the project of trying to figure out the world. But I think the magic fictive experience is that process of reader and writer putting their heads together to discover something about their actual lives, maybe in the setting of a crazy dystopian story or an unlikely event. But it's that joining of consciousnesses. And, you know, the evidence of it is you're reading and you laugh or you're reading and you cringe and - you know?
KELLY: Or you feel relief. I felt relief because I felt compressed into this strange dystopian world with the main character, a narrator who was also very, very human, who I empathized with. But then it was such a relief to kind of come back to my daily life and look around and think, oh, you know...
SAUNDERS: (Laughter) Not so bad yet.
KELLY: I don't have to be pinned to a wall with my head - (laughter).
SAUNDERS: No, that's a beautiful thought. I've never heard that before - relief. That's really nice. You know, and maybe even you feel, you know, some relief that this story wasn't just a piece of random nonsense, that it actually came home.
KELLY: Very well-said. Yeah.
SAUNDERS: But I'll remember that. That's really useful. Thank you.
KELLY: Another story - "Mother's Day." This flips between the perspective of two women who have loved the same man. It's very funny. It also totally broke my heart. I want to get you to read a part of it.
SAUNDERS: (Reading) Alma got hold of a fence slab to pull, pull herself out of this pain. Something new was happening now. The tightness in her chest was worse - Jesus, like labor with Paulie. Then it went past that to labor with Pammy. And she was giving birth to something bigger than Pammy out her chest. God. Oh, God. Pop is how she would have described it, had she still been able to describe - pop. A number of little beings came down. God, get back. He didn't know whether pet 'em (ph) or kick 'em. As they gazed at her intently, she saw they were saying, careful, girlie, careful. Then their boss being came, a man, Paul Senior, looking so handsome. Did you finally wake up, dear, she said, and love the right person, the one who knew you longest and understood you best? Looking at him, she saw the answer was no, still no.
KELLY: So there is a lot going on here. She's obviously having a health issue. She's talking about Paulie Senior, her husband of many years, who's the husband who she has loved and another woman has loved as well.
SAUNDERS: Yeah, it was kind of heartbreaking to write that because in the early parts of the story, she's kind of just a cranky old person, you know? And I think we have a little fun at her - you know, at her expense or in light of her grouchiness. And then by the end of writing that story, I just adored her and was, you know, trying to get her out of her mess, essentially, and couldn't quite figure out a way but maybe did at the end.
KELLY: Are there some that you start out, you work on it for days or weeks or months or whatever it is and, at the end, you think, well, that was a crazy idea, and I'm not sure it landed, so let's go and set that one aside (laughter)?
SAUNDERS: You know, a year ago I would have said no because what tends to happen is I just say, well, I just don't - I just haven't opened up to it enough yet. I just have to keep trying, keep trying, keep trying. And I had one this year that was like, that's a pretty good idea, I think. And I just couldn't - it's a little political. And so I think it's got - I've got my finger on the scale a bit because of my politics. So that was the first maybe in 10 years that I haven't been able to finish yet.
But generally the idea is your - you know, your subconscious is posing you a challenge. And if you're patient enough, it will also give you the answer. And it's a really interesting process that, you know, I've become more and more fascinated with. You'll hit a certain obstruction in a story, and it seems like often the key to getting past that is admitting that you're there, you know? And you can't say, oh, I'm a loser. I'm a terrible writer. I'm a bad person. You just say, the story is challenging me in a way I can't figure out. And then you try to articulate that. And often that's the key.
KELLY: I love that, though. It's such a good way of thinking about all kinds of challenges, isn't it? When it's writing - whether it's writing or anything else, the - you know...
SAUNDERS: No, exactly.
KELLY: ...The temptation is to think, I'm a lousy writer. I'm a loser. I can't do this. But you're saying if you sit with it, then that - it becomes the answer.
SAUNDERS: That's - yeah, exactly. And I...
KELLY: Recognition of the challenge.
SAUNDERS: Right. And so you're - so - often so much energy is spent on, you know, talking yourself down at that point or considering bailing. I think in this time especially, you know, where so much of our public discourse seems to be about having an authoritative position and just sticking there and disliking the people who don't have it and berating them and so on, fiction offers us another way in and basically says to us, you know, you have greater capacities for complexity and understanding and compassion than you might think. So reading a story and writing a story is a way of kind of reminding ourselves of those incredible capacities we have to understand further and to abide longer.
KELLY: George Saunders - his book, a collection of short stories called "Liberation Day," was published in October. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.