Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Jonathan Lethen / Micro-interviewed by Peter Andrey Smith

Jonathan Lethen



This issue features a microinterview with Jonathan Lethem, conducted by Peter Andrey Smith. In addition to being the author of Motherless Brooklyn (1999), Fortress of Solitude(2003), and Chronic City (2009), Jonathan Lethem is a seller of other people’s books. He’s long supplemented his income as a writer by working in used-book stores; it’s the only job he’s ever had. Lethem currently co-owns Red Gap Used Books in Blue Hill, Maine, with André Strong and Marjorie Kernan. Like the title essay of his latest collection, The Ecstasy of Influence(2011), his shelves are a patchwork of collections and influences.


THE BELIEVER: You once interviewed Paul Auster for theBeliever, and, in the spirit of appropriation, I’d like to ask you the first question you asked him: what were you doing before I arrived at your bookstore today?
JONATHAN LETHEM: I was devouring fish-and-chips and a frosty soft-serve chocolate shake from our local fried-fish emporium, The Fishnet. Before that, I was doing real editorial grunt-work: proof corrections on Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis. One of my fates in life is to be a slave of various dead authors. Philip K. Dick probably never did proof corrections in his life; he was a notoriously sloppy writer. And here I am, giving over weeks of my summer to try to make sense of these scrawled lines that he wrote in these manic, overnight bouts. So yeah, I hit send on the whole shaggy mess just before getting over here, so I’m celebrating with a chocolate shake.
BLVR: If I were to look around the bookstore, would I find much Philip K. Dick?
JL: We have a few of his books. They’re actually some of my favorite books in the world because they’re talismans, simultaneously, of my discovery of his writing and my own interest in a certain eccentric kind of book collecting. His publishing history is a strange one—a lot of his first editions are paperback originals. Very ephemeral items publishing-wise, barely more than a notch above a comic book or a porn magazine. Some of his canonical books now in the Library of America—acid-free, in beautiful bindings, and they will be forever, or for as long as anyone cares about the twentieth-century American canon—were first published in these really sleazy editions, the opposite of acid-free—these were acid-laden pages, 90 percent pure-acid pages.
BLVR: Is that what first attracted you to them?
JL: Absolutely. And the covers were painted by these guys who hadn’t read the inside. They just painted sexy women with three breasts or monsters from the id, no matter what the story might actually be about. We’ve got a few; there’s one still on the shelf,Dr. Bloodmoney, Ace edition. One of his greatest novels. The price on the cover is 40 cents.


BLVR: When did you first start collecting books?
JL: It really begins with my walking into a shop, one that’s a big part of my life history: Brazen Head Books, on Atlantic Avenue. I was fourteen, and the place was a really strange amalgam of a puppet theater, a moving company, and a used-book store. It was run by these two guys, Michael and Larry. They took me under their wing and I became a simultaneous triple apprentice to all three enterprises. I’d help them with the moving jobs. I’d do special effects—I mean, lighting the flashpots and so forth—and collect the tickets at the puppet shows. And I helped Michael with the bookshop. He became this guru for me. I read what he told me to read, and I took my pay home in used books. Michael was the first person to make me see how, for the used-book seller, the store’s an extension of your collection—things flow in and out of your home and onto the shelves in an uncanny, unpredictable way. Though you treasure your books, there’s also this pleasure you have in having this sort of public interface, a space where the books don’t yet belong to someone else, but could. You’re showing them off and also implicitly setting them free at the same time.
BLVR: So becoming a bookseller was a big part of your education?
JL: It was my college, all the way down the line. The books I read from my mother’s shelves, and then out of Michael’s shop, the books I read through my high-school years, and what should have been my college years—I basically kissed off a formal education in favor of a bookseller’s autodidacticism. I took the transmission of the shelves. It meant that my interest in contemporary writing was always subject to a ten- or fifteen-year time lag. In the mid-’80s, I didn’t even know that Pynchon and Barthelme and Coover and Richard Brautigan were not “the happening thing” anymore. To me, they were still breaking news. I preferred old stuff and found it more relevant. I dislike new books. It’s like drinking wine that’s not ready. When my first novel was published, Gun, With Occasional Music, I insisted the jacket be made to look like it was old. The gimmick was that it was going to look like a pulp paperback, even though it was a brand-new hardcover. I wanted to be a writer like Philip K. Dick, or Charles Willeford, or some others I revered who’d been published only in these disreputable, ephemeral ways, and who you could find only in used-book stores. I wanted to be out of print before I was even in print.


JL: I have a lot of shelves now, but the state people found me in—including my wife when we first met, nine years ago: I had such a terrifying number of books in a one-bedroom apartment on the third floor that some people were worried that the building was going to fall down. Everything was full of books. The bed wasn’t a bed; it was boxes of books with a mattress on top. I also had this artifact that was growing like a Star Trek salt monster. A pile of books engineered so it would stay together in the middle of the living room, a mound that just kept growing. I had gotten to a point that if there were certain books I needed for reference—books that I knew were in my own living room, somewhere in the inaccessible inner layers of the mountain—I’d make a triage decision, leave the apartment, go to the bookstore, and buy a new copy. I’d begun purchasing second copies of things I not only knew I owned, but could point to where they were. Somehow the defining crime, though, is if your kitchen cabinets are full of books. More recently, thanks to Red Gap and owning two shelf-laden homes (a rambling farmhouse in Blue Hill and a ranch house in Claremont, California), I’ve found significant alleviation. But that’s not to say I don’t have my own books on the shelves at Red Gap and about forty cartons of books in the attic.
BLVR: Besides collecting more books that you already own, how do you go about acquiring books?
JL: Any time I’m in a new place, the question is “What are the bookstores like here?” I was in Ann Arbor to do a visiting-writer gig last March. It’s a good bookstore town. It’s a college town, and commercial real estate is not cost-prohibitive, so there are some good storefront shops that have loaded up over the years. The greatest thing you can ever hear from a bookseller when you walk in is “Well, if you’re really interested, you could look in the basement.” This was what the bookstores were like when I was a kid in New York. You’d beg and plead to get into the basement, where they had layers and layers of accumulation, things people hadn’t been looking at for a long time. In Ann Arbor, I hit two of these shops where they were like, “Well, there’s more lit in the basement.” Music to my ears. I think I shipped five or six cartons of books home. The kinds of books I like to read aren’t all in print, many are out of print, and you don’t lay hands on them easily. At least before the internet you didn’t. So if I saw something that I remotely thought, I might want to read that, and I don’t know if I’ll ever see it again, the answer is to buy it. You have to buy under those circumstances.


JL: I’ve been an advocate against the view of the writer as a partitioned genius hanging in conceptual space, or up on a mountain, a bringer of Promethean fire, some unique transmission that comes out of nowhere. I prefer the opposite view—that writers come from somewhere. They read things, and they think about them, and they incorporate other people’s thoughts. Reading and writing are the same thing; it’s just one’s the more active and the other’s the more passive. They flow into each other. And in the same sense, making books has always felt very connected to my bookselling experience, that of wanting to draw people’s attention to things that I liked, to shape things that I liked into new shapes.
I’m basically a curator. If I write an introduction to G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, or a liner note for the Criterion disc of Preston Sturges’s Unfaithfully Yours—what is that except the same thing I was doing as a twenty-year-old, working, organizing, grooming the lit section at Moe’s Books in Berkeley, making it full of books I cared for? In a way, that essay is a bookshelf. If you took every one of the sources I quoted in “The Ecstasy of Influence,” you’d have to build a pretty large bookshelf to line them all up. It’s literally an anthology of writings I cared about, writings that flowed into me, then flowed literally onto the page.


BLVR: From what I understand, you’re a writer who writes exclusively in front of the screen.
JL: I don’t have a lot of paper in my immediate work environment, except when I’m doing things like checking these godforsaken proofs. Yet I’m making a book and I’m going to care immensely about what words get bound in the pages, and I want the object to look good. I won’t believe in it and it won’t be real to me until there’s a finished book I can hold. The computer is the way I’m making it. I think of the books I write on a sculptural level. I was an art student. That’s what I did before I realized I was going to write, and I still think about the physical properties. I visualize the length of a book, the proportions of a book, in material terms. For better or worse, I’m attached to talismanic things.
BLVR: Near the end of Chronic City, Perkus Tooth ends up with an excerpted passage stuck to his cheek. Am I going to find that your books are missing pages from where you literally excerpted certain passages?
JL: I don’t cut up books. I’m really anxious about this. I hate underlining—even in pencil. I’m like: just remember what was important to you. This is where I’m like a bookseller in that way.Don’t fuck up the book. I hate libraries for the way they put stickers on things. I don’t approve of folding over pages, or of writing in books. God, forget scissors—that’s beyond the pale.
Peter Andrey Smith is a freelance writer, an enthusiastic collector of ephemera, and a lifelong devotee of faits divers. He lives in Maine.

Believer, May 2012

Jonathan Lethem / By the Book


Jonathan Lethem: By the Book

As a child, the author of “Motherless Brooklyn” and the forthcoming “Dissident Gardens” read and reread Alan Watts’s “Wisdom of Insecurity”: “It’s still the help I need.”
Illustration by Jillian Tamaki
Jonathan Lethem


What are you reading at the moment? Are you a one-book-at-a-time person?
I’m all over the place right now, happily. In my office I tend to be racing through short books — Russell Hoban’s “Turtle Diary” and Edward St. Aubyn’s Melrose books and Lydia Millet’s “Magnificence” just now, while at the bedside table and on trains and airplanes I’m grinding away at monsters over a period of months, if not years: Robert Musil’s “Man Without Qualities” and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle.” I’ve been trending to these galactic structures lately — last summer I had my head broken open by Doris Lessing’s “Four-Gated City” and so now appear doomed to read the Martha Quest novels — backwards. I also recently noticed how many unfinished novels have been important to me: Musil’s, Kafka’s, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, Christina Stead’s “I’m Dying Laughing.” Reading around in Ellison’s “Three Days Before the Shooting . . . ”; I bet I’d like that thing in Salinger’s safe.
What’s the best book you’ve read so far this year?
I just devoured in succession two spanking-new studies of great artists, both terrific reading experiences, brain-expanding but embracing, too: Claudia Roth Pierpont’s “Roth Unbound” and T. J. Clark’s “Picasso and Truth.” Both hit their very tricky targets. They’ll be with me for a good long time.
If you had to name a favorite novelist, who would it be?
I hate this question. My favorite letter is D, which gives me Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Dick, Delany and DeLillo. Unless it’s S, which gives me Stead, Spark, Salter, Saramago and others. I could go to a desert island with D or S, I think.
Care to call out your nominees for most overlooked or underappreciated writer?
Every writer I’m reading and loving seems underappreciated to me — then you mention the name and people say either, “Everyone reads them!” (Charles Portis, Dawn Powell) or, “You’re being willfully obscure!” (Ronald Hugh Morrieson, Anna Kavan). That said, this is a major sport for me — I bore my friends with this all the time — so let’s go: Laurie Colwin. Iain Sinclair. James Tiptree Jr., Stanley Elkin and Stanley Ellin. And. . . . But I’ll stop. I’d also champion the familiar-but-taken-for-granted: the greatness of Shirley Jackson, Elizabeth Bowen, Brian Moore, Thomas Berger. The stories of Bruce Jay Friedman.
What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
I notice other people are surprised to see so much of a certain kind of postwar British novelist: Anita Brookner, Penelope Fitzgerald, L. P. Hartley et al. They’re not surprising to me. I think people who haven’t read them imagine they’re cozy books, but they’re not — despite their relatively traditional form, they’re often unsettling.
Do you ever read self-help? Anything you recommend?
As a kid I used to compulsively reread Alan Watts’s “Wisdom of Insecurity.” I didn’t think of that as self-help at the time, but I think of it that way now. It’s still the help I need.
What are your favorite Brooklyn stories? And now that you’re at Pomona College, your favorite books about California? 
Two merciless little novels — Paula Fox’s “Desperate Characters” and L. J. Davis’s “A Meaningful Life” — bring to life the South Brooklyn I knew as a child in the early ’70s. Apart from that, however, I don’t much seek out books about Brooklyn; I’m more turned on by what Brooklyn grain I detect (or imagine I detect) in the voices of certain Brooklyn-born writers who leave the place largely unexplored as a subject: Robert Stone, Gilbert Sorrentino, Maurice Sendak.
As for California, I read Raymond Chandler long before I’d been here. I breathed in the atmosphere of those books before I even understood Chandler was writing about real places rather than conjuring a zone where his stories could be enacted. Now that I’m here, I see his books — and Ross Macdonald’s — as making a deep stratological survey of the place, in the manner of John McPhee.
Did you identify with any literary characters growing up? Who were your literary heroes?
Starting at about 11, with “Alice in Wonderland” and Lewis Carroll, I began identifying with the writer — or what I’ve learned now to call “the implicit author” — of a given fiction, rather than with the characters directly. Possibly some would say this explains a deficit of heroes in my stories.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: what book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

An invitation to air one’s limitations? Sure, I’ll bite. Based on other things I like, people keep insisting I read Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita.” Each time I try, I discover an allegory of Russian politics, both labored and coy, starring Lucifer and a black cat — just about what I’d least wish to read in the world.


If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know? 
I know I should use my time machine to go deep-canonical, but the prospect of trying to navigate a dinner party with Herman Melville, Charlotte Brontë and Honoré de Balzac — figuring out what I could say to them, or what they could say to each other — is beyond my capacities as a bon vivant. Instead, I think I’d want to hang out with three guys I just missed out on knowing, a group more ‘relatable’ to 20th-century me — Don Carpenter, Philip K. Dick and Malcolm Braly. They’re all, as it happens, semi-outlaw types with Marin County connections, so they’d probably have a good time if thrown together. And I could flatter myself and claim I’ve been implicated in the revival of each of their posthumous careers, so we’d have something to raise a glass or spark a joint to. I’d be thrilled to let them know they’re in print.
What book have you always meant to read and haven’t gotten around to yet? Anything you feel embarrassed never to have read?
In the matter of putting things down unfinished, I’m too old now not to do it all the time, when something’s not working. No harm, no foul, just mutual détente. As for the classics unread, in that too I try to leave shame out of my game. The existence of vastly more great books than I can ever hope to read is a primary locus of joy in this life, and weight on the scale in favor of human civilization. What’s weird is that I’ve already doubled back on myself — rereading those classics to which I gave giddy short shrift in my teenage years, I find them as mysterious as if they were new. What good does it do a 50-year-old to go around feeling as if he’s read “The Red and the Black” or “Malone Dies” when he did it as a high school freshman? I often bear false confidence — I’ll reference these things in conversation, or with students — then open the book and wonder who it was that actually read it. Not me.
What do you plan to read next?
I’ve got a beautiful stack right here: Hilton Als’s “White Girls,” Tao Lin’s “Taipei,” Jamie Quatro’s “I Want to Show You More,” the new compendiums of William Gaddis’s and Italo Calvino’s letters. And “Daniel Deronda,” which, you know, I always meant to read and never got around to. I hear it’s good.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Romain Gary / The Made-Up Man

Romain Gary
The Made-Up Man

The writer Romain Gary was an inveterate fabulist. But his work is sustained by an authentic moral vision.

By Adam Gopnik
January 1, 2018

Romain Gary was a great big liar. The French novelist, war hero, and diplomat made up stories the way other people make up beds: daily and conscientiously and without much premeditation. He lied all the time, and about many things. He lied about his background: born Roman Kacew in Lithuania, in 1914, right at the beginning of the European catastrophe, as a poor Jew among poor Jews. He lied about his mother, his father, his education, his literary history, his loves. His fine and patient and entirely admiring biographer, David Bellos, not only called his study of Gary “A Tall Story” but throughout uses words like “bullshit” and “eyewash” to characterize the tales his subject told.
But Gary was a big liar. This desperately poor Eastern European Jew reinvented himself as a French patriot and literary figure, titles he earned by fighting for France and by writing very good novels in French, one of which won the Goncourt Prize, France’s highest literary award. And then, when he was famous under one made-up name and persona, he invented another name and persona, and wrote well enough in this very different voice to win a second Goncourt Prize. (The rules say it can be awarded to someone only once, so he remains the sole writer with this distinction.) No lie Romain Gary told was bigger than that he was Romain Gary.

Romain Gary /A Tall Story by David Bellos / Review

Romain Gary: A Tall Story by David Bellos – review

Josh Lacey encounters a writer whose life was stranger than fiction

Josh Lacey
Saturday 15 January 2011

n 1975, Emile Ajar's second novel, La Vie devant soi, was a French literary sensation. The fictionalised memoir of an Arab boy growing up in a Parisian suburb, packed with extraordinary slang, aggressive jokes and almost unbelievable characters, the book was lathered with praise by critics, eventually wining the Goncourt, the French equivalent of the Booker. It went on to become the bestselling French novel of the 20th century. There was only one problem: Ajar was actually Roman Gary, already a bestselling French author (and previous winner of the Goncourt, which is supposed to be awarded to any particular writer only once), who had reinvented himself to outwit the literary establishment and win a new readership.

David Bellos doesn't appear to be a huge fan of Gary's work – he describes at least one of his books as "unreadable" and others as "middlebrow" – but he's cleverly used his life to investigate the connections between a writer's fiction and his autobiography, and as an excuse for some very funny digs at literary fame, fortune and fashion.
Bellos's magnificent biography of Georges Perec, published in 1993, was an elegant portrait of a writer who claimed to have no imagination, led a fairly humdrum existence and was almost painfully honest about his own shortcomings, but wrote the most fabulous books. Gary may not have been nearly such a good writer as Perec, but he led a far more exciting life, flying planes in the war, marrying a movie star and screwing a different teenage prostitute almost every day. Even so, he felt the need to lie about his own exploits; Bellos describes how Gary had already invented himself several times before he created Emile Ajar, changing his own name, fibbing about his past and publishing some thoroughly unreliable memoirs.
Roman Kacew was born in 1914 in Wilno, now in Lithuania, although part of Poland for most of Kacew's youth. His father soon scarpered, starting another family, and his mother took her young son to France, where he went to school and then joined the air force, failing his final exams through the simple error of being Jewish.
Once the war started, such flaws ceased to matter. Gary fled to England via Morocco, joined Charles de Gaulle's Free French and flew in an RAF squadron packed with French refugees. At the end of the war, only five of his original comrades were still alive.
By then, he'd already published his first novel and married his first wife, Lesley Blanch, an English writer who offered him access to high society. Even more importantly, she didn't mind with whom he had affairs. During the rest of the 40s and the 50s, Gary worked for the French diplomatic service, taking him and Blanch to Bulgaria, Switzerland, New York and LA, where he was consul general, rubbing shoulders with the movie world. He eventually left Blanch and married Jean Seberg, star of Bonjour Tristesse and Breathless.

Romain Gary

Meanwhile, Gary was writing novels in both French and English, often translating himself from one to the other, inventing the names of his translators or, even more oddly, paying someone to translate his work from English to French, then rewriting it himself. His books were prizewinning bestsellers. Many were filmed. Gary become a literary celebrity, regularly pontificating in newspapers and on TV.
But literary fame is fleeting; critics and readers need a constant supply of new blood. At the beginning of his career, Gary had been young, beautiful and unknown; by the 70s, he was old, wrinkled and familiar. He may have been respected, but no one wanted his books any more. So he had to create a new identity for himself, a younger man more in tune with the times. Enter Emile Ajar.
The success of La Vie devant soi turned Ajar into a major literary star, who could no longer be hidden behind veils of secrecy. Gary asked his cousin's son, Paul Pavlowitch, to impersonate the writer in interviews, but made the mistake of allowing a photograph to be distributed too. When Pavlowitch was recognised and journalists made the connection, Gary first issued statements promising that he was not Ajar and then dashed off a book, Pseudo, written in six weeks and published under Ajar's name, in which Pavlowitch acknowledged his own authorship while admitting that he was quite mad.
The critics were satisfied. Readers lapped up the books. Pavlowitch got the fame and Gary was widely pitied for being less talented than his young cousin. He had painted himself into a tragic corner; as Bellos says, "His best work, his real work, was now, by his own action, no longer his."
Pseudo was finally published in English for the first time earlier this year, nicely retitled Hocus Bogus (Yale, £16.99). In Bellos's very free translation, the novel is pun-packed, exhaustingly energetic and a lot of fun, but the narrative simply isn't nearly as interesting as the circumstances of its creation.
As for Gary himself, the effort of creating Ajar seemed to sap something within him. He published a couple more novels, one under his name and the other under Ajar's, then shot himself in the head. Like a true celebrity, he left a suicide note addressed "For the Press."
Josh Lacey's Three Diamonds and a Donkey is published by Marion Lloyd.

Monday, February 19, 2018

In conversación / Neil Gaiman talks to Shaun Tan

Illustration by Shaun Tan

In conversation: Neil Gaiman talks to Shaun Tan

'I use text as the grout between the tiles of the pictures. I always overwrite and then trim it down to the bare bones'

Neil Gaiman (right) and Shaun Tan
Illustrator, author and Oscar-winning film-maker Shaun Tan (left), with Neil Gaiman. Photograph: Colin McPherson
I met Shaun Tan for the first time in 1996, at a science-fiction convention in Perth, and only half-remember meeting him. He's quiet, shy, generally unassuming. I got to know him slightly better with each subsequent trip to Australia, and he got used to me introducing myself to him and him telling me that actually we'd already met. He's an artist and a writer and now a director, possessor of a peculiar and singular vision. As an artist he combines real drawing skill with a profoundly off-kilter imagination, his characters, human and otherwise, are at the same time funny and enticing; as a writer and storyteller he creates stories, sometimes wordless, always told with an economy of words, which manage to be both alienating and embracing: a child on a beach finds an alien monster inside something (a box? a house? a spaceship?) and brings it home, dealing with a Kafkaesque bureaucracy; an immigrant comes to live in a distant country where everything is different and inexplicable; a foreign exchange student is a tiny, leaf-like botanist; surreal images of depression and hopelessness almost, but do not, overwhelm a small girl, and at the last there is magic and hope.
Tan's vision is intensely personal, but not exclusionary. People love what he does. I've had Australians press his books on me in Australia and bring them as visiting gifts when abroad. His film The Lost Thing won an Oscar as best animated short (fellow Perthling Tim Minchin does the voiceover). He was given the 2010 Astrid Lindgren Memorial award, the only children's award that comes with real money, and the other people on the longlist did not mind. Well, I didn't, anyway, and I was nominated.
He lives in Melbourne. He's not very tall, and he has an easy smile when he relaxes. He does not seem to mind that I only spell his first name right half the time.
He told me once that he began writing after The Rabbits, his award-winning book, started life as a 16-line fax from Australian author John Marsden, which took Shaun a year to illustrate. "And he got half the royalties," he said. But his pictures and his stories are all of a piece.
I had a Shaun Tan painting done on a bottlecap hanging on my wall for a year.

A life in writing / George Saunders

George Saunders by Austin Kleon




'I want to do as much weirdness and experimentalism as is necessary to access the emotional core; no more, no less. It's not a fancy side-project'

Emma Brockes
Saturday 12 January 2013

He calls Tenth of December, his new collection, "my least disturbing book" – a good indication of the slant of his work. The stories are still extremely sinister, turning on a threat of violence all the more powerful for being withheld, but they allow also for the possibility of people doing the right thing. And while the tone and setting of the stories is often satirical, the interactions are deeply, realistically human. "My habit," says Saunders, "would have been to veer towards the dark – to prove I was something; edgy, or maybe to prove that I was cognisant of the dark side. Now, with age and confidence, I can say, yeah, that's true, but I am cognisant of the fact that people can do things well. And can be more loving than you expect."
We are in a meeting room in Manhattan, in a complex owned by Syracuse University, where Saunders has a residency and is down for the day from his home in upstate New York. He looks, at 54, like a younger version of William H Macy: affably dishevelled, fundamentally amused and, in conversation, ignited by the force of his passion. Tenth of December is alive with ideas, driven by his talent for subtly reframing the world. It took him a long time to get here, says Saunders, who came relatively late to writing and had to overcome a hefty inferiority complex before he found his voice. By training he is a geophysicist, and in his early 20s he spent a few years working in the oil fields of Sumatra – the kind of life experience that, one might have thought, would have emboldened him to write.
The problem, he says, was one of authority; he hadn't read enough, then, to feel he had a right to contribute, or any sense of what idiom his contribution might take. "If you haven't read you don't have the voice," he says. "The lack of voice eliminates experience. I was having all these experiences but they were kind of blocked to me."
The experiences were pretty wild. "I mean, the material was electric. These crazy nightclubs, transvestite clubs, and Sikh bouncers who were rumoured to actually kill people when they bounced them. I had read so little that I didn't know how to … I would look at that experience and try to Joseph Conrad-ise it; or Somerset Maugham it. And it didn't cohere. If I'd read Kerouac I would have had a diction. So I remember at that time my magnum opus was about a very old man in a senior citizen's home who was looking back on his years in Asia." He laughs and hammily wheezes: "'Oh, I can hardly move. But I lived once!' And then I'd write down what I did last week.'"
That it occurred to him to be a writer at all is something he still can't entirely explain. "I just wanted it so much. And I didn't have any other means of imagining myself into the future. I played music, and I tried to do that, but I didn't really have the fire. There was just this feeling that I can do this. And unfortunately, I had a kind of a dispositional stubbornness."
He had grown up on the south side of Chicago in a mixed neighbourhood. "It wasn't John Cheever, but it also wasn't The Grapes of Wrath. It was just home." His father worked for a coal company; his mother was a homemaker. It was a comfortable childhood; it was later, in his 20s and after returning from Indonesia, that Saunders experienced a period of poverty that would deeply inform his moral view of the world, particularly as it appeared in his writing. It was this, twinned with his years spent as a tech writer, that shaped Saunders's style: pared down, thrillingly compact, with everything stripped to its essence. (As a tech writer, he billed for his hours and was rewarded for shedding anything fancy).
"The thing I found," says Saunders, "was if you want to avoid creating a world that looks habituated, compression is a great way to do it. Because we're habituated, both in life and in fiction, to certain ways of expressing things. So – if someone asks how do you get to the hospital? The answer is four blocks and turn left. But the actual experience of going to the hospital is a thousand pointillistic things that are probably sub-articulable. And then: what are the linguistic corollaries that I can make, that actually come alive anew?"

It can be a risky venture, writing like this, playing a game of chicken with the readers' expectations. But, says Saunders, why invite them in and then waste their time with a lot of extraneous material? Compression, he says, is a "courtesy", as well as a "form of intimacy". He teaches his students thus: "When I'm explaining something to you, if I'm being long-winded, and twisty in a non-productive way, I could make you feel vaguely insulted. And you'd have a right to be. You brought me into this book and now you're farting around? If somebody respects you enough … if we're in this game together, it's like a motorcycle and sidecar. If they're very close together, they can go around corners together. But if it's way out here – waaaaah."
Saunders has never worried too much about the commercial impact of these aesthetic decisions, but he does worry about "excluding readers because of a weakness in your own approach. In other words, is your edginess a kind of defence mechanism?" He would say the same thing about his gravitational pull towards the negative versus the positive experience. In all things, he is motivated by the ambition, just once, "in prose, to represent the way life actually feels to me. So I don't really care about commercial so much, except if I was failing to be commercial because I was failing to be human, because I was too afraid, or too technically deficient. Then I would care. Commercially" – he smiles – "I'm almost dead, so it doesn't matter."
The period of poverty he went through in his 20s is the moral underlay to all this; it taught him, in a different way, to be lean and efficient and, if he didn't already, to regard the truisms of his country with a certain scepticism. He was unemployed when he returned from Indonesia, and "to come back and be a dope with a college degree who couldn't find work – to see what America feels like when that happens … it was short term, but I got enough to see. When you butt up against capitalism in that way, it leaves a scar that stays. Terry Eagleton says capitalism plunders the sensuality of the body and to get that experience first hand, I think you've got something to work with for the rest of your life." It is true of many writers, he says: "They may not have the facts, but if they've had any kind of encounter with the moral universe, that may be enough. That's it."
There were other fallouts from this experience, not least in his attitude towards money. To this day, Saunders says, he flinches when using a credit card. When presented with a choice, he instinctively goes for the cheapest option. It also did something to his productivity. Before he won the 2006 MacArthur fellowship, which comes with a $500,000 bursary, Saunders combined writing with full-time teaching and if that meant he only had eight minutes to write in a day, he took them. "I set up the computer at just the right angle to make it maximally hard for somebody to get around and see what I was doing. So having written under those conditions, it was great training. I abandoned a lot of grad student habits: what sort of research should I do? Let me burn some incense before I get started. It was like, if you don't do this now you're out of luck for the day."
Winning the prize was a real game-changer psychologically too, given his earlier anxieties. "It had a very strange effect: having a bunch of strangers go 'you're worth something', and you thought, 'alright then, I will be worth something'. And this book is actually the result of feeling a little more sanctioned, to take the bigger swing at the ball. These people I don't know honoured me with this thing; I'm going to do better."
Saunders is often considered a postmodern writer, an accidental side-effect of his efforts to push through the limitations of existing modes of expression. For a long time, he felt "very vulnerable around postmodernism" and stuck, in his reading, to Steinbeck, Hemingway, Dos Passos and Thomas Wolfe. "So then it was a long process of trying to not become a 1930s writer, when it was actually 1980." He didn't, at that point, set out to be postmodern. "My thing is to say: I want to do as much weirdness and experimentalism as is necessary to access the emotional core; no more, no less. It's not a fancy side-project." It's central to the project of making it real? "Exactly. Toby Wolff said all good writing is experimental by definition. If it's not experimental, it's just a museum piece."
Apart from the technical difficulties of pulling off such ambitious stories as as Saunders', the biggest problem is keeping himself interested over the weeks and months and eventually years of a project. He is strict with himself about not working on something if it doesn't enthuse him, even if that means putting a half-finished story away for a decade. The key to his engagement, he says, is the not knowing; how it turns out, or what exactly he is aiming for. "It's kind of a circular thing. You're writing to find out what the scene is for. Once you find it out, you're going back and doing some horticulture. So for me, my whole schtick is, doing short fiction is like trying to suspend your conceptual understanding of the story for as long as possible."
There is nothing worse, he says, than plodding through the plot points of a story that is dead before it hits the page. "Donald Barthelme has this great essay called "Not Knowing", where he says that your job as a fiction writer is to keep yourself confused for as long as you can. And the text will actually have an energy that will start talking to you. If you can keep your own designs a little quiet."
It's something of a brain melt: trying to understand the mechanisms of keeping one's own self in the dark without blowing the ability to do it. Actually, says Saunders, it's a subtle but definite distinction.
"There's the ability to articulate a knowledge and there's the ability to enact it. And I was never that interested in the first. It's sort of a job hazard. You have to do it, and in teaching you do it. But the real reason I got into this is that I wanted to actually be able to do it. Be able to write a story. And there's whole tracts of knowledge in there that you can do without being able to articulate it."
These days, with both a MacArthur and a Guggenheim fellowship behind him, he has the luxury of dividing his time between writing and teaching, taking refuge in each when the other gets too much. The mental state most conducive to his writing is, he says, "to be a little bit happy. I goof around until I feel that" – and if he doesn't, he puts his work in a drawer until he feels like returning to it. To this end, Tenth of December took years to complete, interrupted by other writing, and any planned thematic link between stories is coincidental – or, rather, unconscious. By the end, Saunders saw, there was a broad, shared landscape between the stories of either a near future or a parallel present, a kind of Saunders-land that is instantly recognisable to his readers. (Those ornaments in the garden? Turned out to be made of live, developing-world women, rented from an agency and hung from a kind of clothes line – the new, must-have status symbol of the American suburbs.)
Saunders has always been fiercely ambitious for his writing, but lately has refined his idea of what constitutes trying hard. "I don't want to get to the end of my life and not have done my best," he says. "And I'm starting to realise that I always thought the answer was just to work hard. And it's true, but there's another component, which is that you have to keep pushing yourself to open up to the widest possible vision of the world. And find a prose style that will make that compelling. And that is a beautiful challenge."
Saunders feels under no particular pressure to turn out another "nine, 12, 15" books since, he says wryly, "I think I'll probably still die at the end." The interesting thing is somehow to get "a story down that is true to the way this has all felt. Even if it's a four-page story. That would be very nice."
He thinks for a moment. The ambition is this: "I want you to read my book and have it actually matter to you. Not to your constructed literary self. But to you. To the person who has issues and confusions."
To Saunders, that's what a moral is; nothing preachy. Just the fact "that one human being can speak to another and say something that isn't bullshit".



A life in writing / John Burnside 


A life in writing / Javier Marías