George Saunders’s many rabid fans — more numerous by the day, per the Times’ best-seller list — haven’t had to wait long for their next fix of wildly inventive dystopia. Just four months after the release of his latest collection of stories, Tenth of December, which The New York Times Magazine raved about (justifiably) in a cover profile, his publisher’s out today with Fox 8, a gorgeously illustrated children’s story gone awry — about a fox whose habitat is destroyed by a shopping mall, and that’s just for starters — available only as an e-book. Saunders spoke with us about his foxy misspellings, the limits of mind-expanding technology, and the nagging question of whether there’s any hope for humanity.
How did you decide to write a story narrated by a fox with terrible spelling?
I wrote a little humor piece once from the point of view of a dog, and I thought that was kind of a funny idea. But I was thinking this would be a kids’ book, and that spelling idea, I am not really sure where it came from. But once I stumbled on it, it was really fun. Rendered correctly, it wouldn’t be that interesting, but with the right choice of bad spelling, suddenly it became kind of poetic. So I sent it out as a kids’ book to two or three editors, and right away got shot down because the misspellings were problematic. Which kind of made sense. Who would want to put the bad spellings in somebody’s head?
You could have miseducated an entire generation.
Yeah, but there was also a compendium of corrections for the spellings. And at that time, the story did not have the dark turn it has now. When it became not viable as a kids’ book, then it became really interesting just as a real short story. It was almost like, “How can you make something that horrible happen to somebody who is so nice?” And of course you go, “Yeah, it happens all the time!”
You seem to have a lot of fun with limited narrators.
I am always looking for something that will allow me to do something in a voice that would be fun, so an animal’s a great one. Any kind of thwarted perception is interesting to me because then you have to squeeze into the weird corners of language, and that, paradoxically, is really freeing. You know, in War and Peace there are sections where Tolstoy writes from the point of view of horses and dogs. And if I was going to try and write a story from your point of view — I don’t know you. All I can learn about you is through observation. Well, in some ways it’s the same with a horse. You just look at the horse’s behavior and then you try to approximate its mental state with some kind of language. To me, it’s not that much different.
Why publish this as an e-book and leave it out of Tenth of December?
I had it in there at one point, and somehow every time I got to this one, it was asking one stretch too many from the reader. So I took it out, and then my editor said to me, “Would you like to revisit that story as a stand-alone release?” I didn’t even know you could do that. It was published in McSweeney’s two or three years ago, so it was kind of a chance to do one last revision on it.
How has it changed?
The version in McSweeney’s was a little more defeatist — Fox 8 was like, “Fuck you people, I hate you guys.” And in this one he’s got one more bit of reserve to see if human beings can explain things to him. The main effect is to make it airier, a little more hopeful, a little more open-ended.
You’ve mentioned in interviews that you think you’ve mellowed with age. Does that account for it?
You know, I was reading a draft of a story I started about five years ago, and I noticed that I was taking a kick or two extra at this character. So just as an aesthetic challenge, I was like, Okay, what if you didn’t have that presumption that it would end badly? So I went through the story and just circled the parts that were lively and tried to separate them from my presumption of the dark swerve, and it was interesting. It’s like, say you’re observing a couple talking on the street. You can’t hear but you can see them. My tendency has always been to assume that they’re fighting. And they might be, but just technically it’s interesting for me to say now, at this stage of my life, what if there’s something else going on? Maybe it’s not as bad as you think?
Kind of like Fox 8, who implores people to explain why they can be so mean?
Yeah, because he really did see a horrible thing. And that was based on something I saw. Many, many years ago I was working an oil crew in west Texas, and we would spend twelve to fourteen hours in the field, putting out these long cables. I was sitting there with these two guys, and suddenly this vulture comes out of the brush and it was wounded. These guys rushed it and hit it with their hard hats. And once they got it down, they beat it to death, basically. And they were nice guys. They were just kind of bored. I didn’t know that people were capable of that. You can’t look at life, especially in the last century, and come up with too rosy of a picture of it. Mostly people will behave the way you expect them to, and pretty nicely, but somewhere on the edge of the field there is this crazy cruelty that manifests.
That doesn’t sound too optimistic.
But for a writer, part of the deal is that you never want to be a schmuck. You don’t want to have a world where everything is so much darker than the real world, cause that’s false. That’s the world you often see in TV and movies. Everybody is a pedophile, and every alley holds something lurking, but you also wouldn’t want to go the other way and have a relentlessly new age of vision that everybody’s great. Those two end conditions are both remarkably untrue. So to me the interesting thing is, what’s the algorithm here?
Your work seems very skeptical of the modern world. What’s your family life like? Do you ban TV? Do your kids only play with Danish wooden toys?
No, no, not at all. When our kids were little, we were strict about TV, which I think is appropriate. I mean, there’s no golden rule that says that whatever somebody shits into the universe has to come into your house. But if you’re living in this time, you have to have two mindsets. One is to be protective of the things that technology, driven by greed, is more than happy to do to your mind. The second thing is you have to be open to the genuine pleasures of same. Because you’ll never understand the first thing if you don’t understand the second thing.
But if, like one of your characters, you could take a pill to be more verbally acute, would you?
I would run like the wind from it. I’d rather be 30 percent less articulate but be in actual relationship to my own inarticulateness. There are a lot of times when I’m writing something and I can feel myself getting above my station, trying to do a diction that I can’t quite do. Well, now I’ve learned that’s okay. To have that strain show is good. I’ve never been on any kind of drugs because I think your mind as it actually is is very, very interesting, even in its defects.
So, The New York Times Magazine put you on its cover and called Tenth of December “The Best Book You’ll Read This Year” …
Did they? Oh my God! You’re kidding me! [Laughs.] That is so nice.
Are you worried about becoming too mainstream?
It was funny because as I was writing the stories I thought, Oh man, another non-mainstream book. I wasn’t pulling my punches, I was just trying to do the best I could. If anything, I am understanding this as permission to go farther. For me, it was a book I was really proud of because I stuck to my guns. I mean, I tried to make a bigger doorway — that’s the way I was thinking of it at the time. But that was part of my aesthetic program; it wasn’t like a strategy. Being on the best-seller list makes me feel like apparently I am not as weird as I thought.
I guess I can wrap it up with this question: Is there any hope for us?
Sure. Well, let me ask you a question: Why not?
Thousands of years of history?
But is it a win or a loss? You could imagine yourself in a genocide with nobody to turn to, where nobody’s sympathetic and the killers go on to great wealth and die in their beds at 97. But then weighing against that are the people who live honorable lives, loved their kids, weren’t in too bad of health, had a lot of beautiful days, and died in their beds, smiling. I am getting more comfortable with having both those visions in my mind. What do you think?
It depends on the day. Today Rush Limbaugh said there is no point in fighting gay marriage.
That’s a good day! As I am getting older, my sense is that there are two impulses. To read it as an unrelenting defeat and a downward spiral, that doesn’t quite seem large-hearted enough. But also, though, to read it as a tremendous upward march to freedom and dignity, that doesn’t seem right either. So the question is, is there a third position that depends on the day and the location and the circumstance? That seems to me the most mature.