Bristol Prize

Interview with George Saunders

May 22, 2013   Joe Melia

There is great excitement in Bristol at the imminent arrival of short story genius George Saunders, widely acknowledged as one of the world’s most daring and original writers currently at work. George will be appearing at Watershed on May 30th when he will be in conversation with the writer, event host and all round literary powerhouse, Bristol’s very own Nikesh Shukla. The event is part of the brilliant Festival of Ideas which runs in Bristol throughout the year. George kindly agreed to answer a few questions ahead of his appearance in Bristol. Tickets are available for this unmissable event from the Watershed’s box office. 

You and your writing are regularly festooned with superlatives, from the world’s funniest writer to one of Time Magazine’s most influential people. Which of these are you most fond? 

I am very fond of receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor, for heroism in battle.  I’m a little unclear on why I got it – I have never been in the military, much less a “battle.”  But some people are just lucky, I guess. Anyway, I was raised Catholic, so that any award just makes me feel more inadequate – this is the happy result of my “inner nun.”

Speaking of humour, do you ever laugh when you are writing, when you come up with a funny line, a new word or phrase or situation?

Sometimes, the first time I come up with it.  After that, not usually.  Unless I’ve just had dental work and am on residual “laughing gas.”  Then, everything is funny.

When did you first feel confident to depart entirely from ‘reality’ in your stories? Or was that confidence there from the beginning?

No, I was a habitual realist as a young writer – very fond of Hemingway, Steinbeck, et al.  What happened was, that mode of expression started to feel out of step with the reality I was living – inadequate to fully express it.  I think that’s what any writer is hoping for – that “real” life will seem so different from life as he’s seen it written before that he’ll be moved to do something somewhat new.

Are there any short stories by other writers that you wish you’d written?

Oh, so many.  Actually, come to think of it: all of them.  That way, I’m covered.  Whatever turns out to be the greatest short story of all time, I will have written it.  But to name a few:  “The Overcoat,” by Nikolia Gogol; “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” by Leo Tolstoy; “In the Basement,” by Isaac Babel; “A Small Good Thing,” by Raymond Carver;  “Indian Camp” by Ernest Hemingway,  “The School” by Donald Barthelme; “Bullet in the Brain,” by Tobias Wolff.

When you enter a book shop which sections or writers to you tend to make a beeline for?

If I see Faulkner, I make a beeline for him.  Especially if he’s been drinking.  Then you can easily “guide” him into the café section and “persuade” him to spend all of his ill-gotten Hollywood money on scones and so forth.

If you had the authority to do so, on whom, living or dead, would you bestow a sainthood, secular or otherwise? 

All of us.

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