George Saunders wrote a book that changed my life. Why didn't he want to talk to me about it?
Last year, when we first entered lockdown and it felt like everything was doomed and therefore possible, I came up with the idea of hosting a fantasy dinner party over Zoom. I would invite the celebrities I most wanted to spend an hour with and we would talk about big issues in ways that were ceaselessly interesting, then I would write about how great it all was. The first name on my list - just ahead of my wife's - was George Saunders. I had to think very hard to come up with any others and, when I eventually did, they felt unworthy of their place alongside him, which is no way to feel about people. So, having decided I could do anything I wanted, I decided on a Zoom dinner party with George Saunders.
His rejection arrived swiftly and was a work of beauty and compassion worthy of his generation-defining stories. He began by claiming it was a great idea but said his wife wasn't well, and he was also in the middle of quiet time for work, so he would have to pass. He signed off with his first name, as if ours had been an exchange between pals rather than one of the greatest living humans having to take time away from reshaping the English language to deal with a guy in the midst of a pandemic-induced existential crisis.
For the next year or so, I never thought about George Saunders more than once every few days. Then, a few weeks ago, on the desk of the books editor, I saw an advance copy of Saunders' new book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (In which Four Dead Russians Give Us A Masterclass in Writing and Life) and I took it without asking.
I can't imagine a book title that would appeal more perfectly to my sensibilities. Had it been a hyperlink, I would have clicked so hard it would have broken the internet. I opened the book and was barely a page in when I came across a line which entirely and immediately changed the way I thought about reading and writing, and also about people: "... the origins of every good and evil capability of the universe may be found by observing a single, even very humble, person and the turnings of his or her mind."
I read a few more chapters, every one of which changed my life, then I sent the following humiliatingly mawkish and sycophantic email to Saunders:
"I'm a writer with the New Zealand Herald newspaper, and a big-time fan of yours, and I'm keen to write a feature article in our weekend magazine about A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, which has already changed my life several times. I'm wondering if you would be free at some point over the next week or two to have a chat about it over the phone. I appreciate you even reading this email, which, if I was you, I probably wouldn't."
In the minutes after sending, I hit refresh often and enthusiastically, awaiting his reply, but the day passed, then the week, and I started to realise the awful truth - I had caused the world's greatest author to hate my guts. Maybe it was because he remembered me from the dinner party request, the excessive familiarity of which presumably still rankled, maybe it was because of my failure to place my interview request through accepted intermediaries, maybe it was the hyphen I'd inserted (at the last minute) in "big-time", maybe it was the "joke" in the last line, which, now I thought about it, was neither funny nor endearing. Maybe it was the whole wheedling and pathetic tone in which I could now see I had written.
When I read back over the email, through his eyes, and considered the possibility of spending an hour with its author, I knew he had done the right thing, which, I presumed, was printing out my email, reading it aloud to his family in the voice of a baby, setting it on fire, laughing as it burned, then spitting at it until the flames were extinguished.
Yes, I am in love with George Saunders and no, I am not ashamed, nor am I alone. Saunders' debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, won the Man Booker Prize in 2017, to no one's surprise, because by that point he had spent 20 years publishing some of the greatest short stories ever written in English. He is among our greatest living writers and is one of our greatest living people: humble, gracious, generous; someone about whom a bad word is unable to be found; an exemplar of how to live, particularly in the face of all this suffering.
In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, Saunders takes seven short stories by four Russian masters, re-publishes them, unabridged, then adds his thoughts, insights and speculations. What were they trying to say, these authors, and what might we learn from them - as readers, writers and humans? The discussions are typically Saundersian: funny, unpretentious, written at a slant, in such a way as to completely demystify the mystery of literary genius, in such a way as to make us think we could write like that, which we can't.
By far the weirdest of the book's seven stories is Nikolai Gogol's The Nose, in which a man loses his nose and later discovers it running around the city dressed as a gentleman. In the essay that follows - "The Door to the Truth might be Strangeness" - Saunders pays particular attention to the story's narrator, who is very bad at his job. Saunders tells us this is an example of what is called "skaz" - a particular Russian form of unreliable first-person narration in which the narrator is, as Saunders puts it, "not right".
Skaz is a carefully created, direct and deliberate challenge to the idea that the objective, omniscient, third-person narrator used so commonly in fiction, by many great writers, including some whose work is represented in this book, exists in the real world. Why shouldn't narrators, like the rest of us, be a confused shambles?
Describing skaz, Saunders writes: "an unbalanced narrator describes, in an unbalanced voice, the doings of a cast of unbalanced characters.
"In other words, like life."
There's a good reason interviews with luminaries like Saunders are organised through publicists. For a book like this one, Saunders will do well over 100 interviews, plus [Covid restrictions-permitting] readings, appearances, signings and other writing-prohibitive activities. People like him don't have time to organise their own publicity and definitely don't have time to deal with the needy, attention-seeking emails of desperate journalists.
I was so embarrassed by my email faux pas I wanted to drop the whole thing, but because I'd made a commitment to my editor, I swallowed my pride and emailed a publicist, who emailed Saunders what I presume was a brief and professional request, and within hours the interview was confirmed. A week later George Saunders was on Skype on my kitchen table, almost as if we were at a dinner party.
He gave no indication of hating me, or resenting my pathetic attempts at contacting him directly. He was exactly as kind and generous with me as he's been in every interview he's ever given, which is to say, very.
We talked for an hour, mostly about how to write. Although Saunders is beloved of critics, he pays no attention, at least while writing, to the types of things critics pay attention to. His focus is always on the reader - keeping them interested enough in each line to carry on to the next. He does this not by thinking about theme or structure or any other "literary" concept, but by thinking about the interest value of the line he's working on.
"Each of us has to put together a sort of manifesto to work by," he told me, "and if I say to myself, 'F*** theme, just think about the individual lines,' I can work all day. Whereas if I think, 'Get a good theme', I'm mowing the lawn.
"When I was younger and I was thinking, 'What are my themes?' Oh boy, those are never good writing days. There would be the theme and that would be it. Nobody would want to get near it. It was like a s*** on the table."
Saunders' stories are so unpretentious, his authorial voice so funny, his language so odd and exaggerated, the action so bizarre, it's ridiculous to believe he would even be capable of producing a s*** on a table. But of course it's not ridiculous to him.
I brought up the ignored email late in the interview, embedding it within a discussion about skaz, to protect my ego. He was clearly surprised and said he normally replies to every email. He started working through his memory, trying to think how he'd missed it. He was exactly as sweet and kind about it as he always is, as I'd known he would be: "I'm sorry for not answering that email," he said. "Now I'm feeling very guilty."
He said he often defaults to similar thinking when people don't answer his emails ("What did I do to make them so mad?") and often assumes after public events that he's offended the interviewer.
"We've all got these presets," he said, by which he meant we are regular misinterpreters of reality, unreliable narrators of our own lives.
"That, to me, is Gogol," he said. "You've got two people talking, you've got these people who are so convinced they're the only person in the world, and that their perceptions are accurate, and what he does so accurately is he shows that no one's got it right, even the narrator."
A few minutes after our interview ended, he sent me an email. It was three lines long and every line made me want to read on to the next:
The first line thanked me for the interview. The second apologised for missing my email and assured me it wouldn't happen again. The third read: "I will never not like you. :)"
I knew that was the truth and felt good about it, and I knew it was disingenuous and felt bad about it.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (In which Four Dead Russians Give Us A Masterclass in Writing and Life) (Bloomsbury, $37) is released on March 30.