by Alex Clark)
There are busy weeks and there are weeks so intensely eventful that they might only have happened in fiction; winning not one, but two, literary prizes surely comes in the latter bracket. Particularly when they are, mind-bogglingly, the first two literary prizes of a much-lauded career. So, what, I asked George Saunders, who had, only a few days before, scooped up the $20,000 (£12,000) Story prize, was going through his mind as he waited for the winner of the inaugural Folio prize to be announced last Monday?
Well, he replied, in a couple of days' time, he and his wife Paula were travelling to Paris. "So I just thought, well, you know, whatever happens, we're going to Paris. I've never been before."
As things turned out, he and Paula will still always have Paris, but their first trip there will likely hold a different charge and generate differently inflected memories. Success has not exactly been slow in the 18 years since the publication of his first short-story collection, Civilwarland in Bad Decline; that and subsequent books including Pastoralia and In Persuasion Nation have drawn praise from luminaries such as Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen and comparisons with Kurt Vonnegut and Flannery O'Connor. A regular contributor to the New Yorker since 1992, in 2006 Saunders was the recipient of both a Guggenheim fellowship and a MacArthur fellowship, or "genius grant". But there is something about winning a big prize – and particularly one open to English-language fiction from all over the world and determinedly flexible about form and genre, and which is judged by writers themselves – that extends beyond the £40,000 prize money. When Tenth of December, his fourth collection, was published last year, it was greeted with excited anticipation and widespread acclaim; now it has an extra level of validation.
It works both ways: Saunders is a good winner to showcase the British prize's wide parameters, being both an American and a short-story writer. His victory comes in the context of an exciting, unpredictable shortlist comprising Jane Gardam, Sergio De La Pava, Amity Gaige, Rachel Kushner, Anne Carson, Kent Haruf and Eimear McBride – a shortlist one couldn't have second-guessed and which includes a book that was original self-published (De La Pava's A Naked Singularity) and work that blends poetry and prose (Carson's Red Doc>). Despite AS Byatt's comments about what the shortlist, with Gardam the only British author, told us about the state of British writing – her worries were directed at the publishing industry rather than the prize itself – the Folio's first year has been an invigorating one.
We met in the immediate aftermath of the announcement, with Saunders's wife Paula sitting quietly to the side occasionally offering illuminating elaborations on his answers (third parties in interviews, usually watchful PR people, are rarely good news; Paula is an emphatic exception), and fell quickly to talking about literary success, what it means, the roads that lead towards it. It is not, obviously, about winning prizes; in fact, it seems more than anything to be about getting going in the first place.
Saunders had started off his working life as a geophysicist in the oil industry, caught a disease river-swimming in Sumatra and in 1985 applied to the master of fine arts programme at Syracuse University after he had seen profiles of Jay McInerney and Raymond Carver in People magazine; his story "In the Room of Floating Objects" was enough to catch the eye of tutor Tobias Wolff. Once there, he met Paula and, "in the romantic Syracuse ambience", they were engaged within three weeks. Less than three years after they had met, they had two daughters, Caitlin and Alena.
He told me that when a classmate had a novel accepted, he thought, "'We've got a lot of other things to do now.' And then I think we were kind of both working through all that. But then you hit 30, and nothing's happening, and you think, 'Ah! The child prodigy years have flown!'
"But the thing about it that I remember was that there was there was something very sweet about that because your first draft of your success was invalid. It was not going to happen like Jay McInerney or something like that. So then, we were both working really hard and we had these two adorable daughters, and I remember riding my bike to work – we only had one car – and thinking, well, this is great. Even if the success, what I thought was going to happen, didn't, that's my fault. That's my bad. To have that wonderful life and just be able to work on the side was quite good and pure."
He really was working "on the side" – as a technical writer, he would clock in and then try to write his reports quickly enough to liberate half an hour here, half an hour there. He would edit stories on the bus and grab bits of time at the weekend; much of the time he was trying to escape notice in the office and avoid the intrusion of a colleague who would cheerfully engage him in conversation about the western novels of Zane Grey.
But a scarcity of time was only one – and perhaps the least – of his problems. He had been writing a novel entitled La Boda de Eduardo, or Edward's Wedding, based on a big Mexican wedding he had attended. Over a couple of years, it had grown to 700 pages, which he cut in half and gave to Paula, whom he consistently describes as his best reader. "I just thought, this is it: we're done! I did it! And then I came out and saw her reading it. She's not a great liar, and so she just had her head in her hands, just like, no, no, no! And that was a huge thing."
What was wrong? "At that time I'd been reading a lot of Joyce, and so I was really into compression and not giving anything away, so it was just a kind of impenetrable book … The first hour, you go, oh why'd I even give it to her, and then you go, oh that's totally right, I knew that already."
But a week later, everything changed. Saunders was in a conference-call meeting, and began doodling, "writing these stupid Doctor Seussian poems, drawing the picture, writing the poem, drawing the picture, putting them on a pile. And I brought those home that night and I somehow couldn't throw them away, they were kind of fun to have done. And I left them, went to do something, and I heard Paula laughing from the other room, with real sincerity, and something just popped in my head. And I realised all those years I'd left out anything fun."
His descriptions of "all those years" spent "doing a false thing at length" frequently allude to his relationship to other writers; his personal anxiety of influence, born partly of growing up in a working-class milieu with no writers around. Hemingway looms large, as does Kerouac. At Syracuse, he and Paula had encountered Raymond Carver, just as the new realism was emerging.
"I couldn't operate in that mode," Saunders says. He describes the short‑story writer Barry Hannah as "a real permission-giver", and was also influenced by non-"literary" artists such as Monty Python and Steve Martin. When he finally wrote a short story in his own voice, he recalls, he felt like next to the mountain marked Hemingway "a little dunghill appeared with my name on it in handwriting, misspelled".
He developed his own brand of what he and Paula loosely refer to as "exaggerated realism" intuitively. When he read the word "dystopian" on the cover of his first book, he says, he had to go and look it up. But he was driven by a desire to "knock this glass over and make a fuss" and pressingly aware that he had to find a different way to do it: "When you're young you think a story is just what happened to you, typed up. But then you think – no, a story is a really weird art object that should contain life but not be enslaved by the banality."
That ability to look at life sideways is what has most consistently attracted admiration. He is wary of intellectualising his writing after the fact, but will concede that "in retrospect the things we were feeling coming off of American culture couldn't be reached by just simple realism. It had to be a little nutty. Sometimes a ghost would have to get in."
The stories in Tenth of December, like those in his previous collections, certainly are "weird art objects"; they take the familiar situations and backdrops of everyday American life and saturate them with hyper-real colour and skewwhiff language. "Soon," as a character in the fantastical story "Escape from Spiderhead" says, having been drip-fed the lucidity-inducing drug Verbaluce, "I was feeling the same things but saying them better." Sometimes his trick is to imagine not a dystopia, but a utopia – to convincingly effect, for example, a child abduction that ends with a rescue, or, as in the collection's title story, an aborted suicide. Throughout, what he tries to create is "a non-condescending space, where I'm not imagining you as being less than me, I'm not going to show off for you, I'm going to imagine you as equal to me, maybe even a little better than me. Then we start talking like equals."
In his acceptance speech at the Folio, Saunders spoke warmly of the central importance of fiction to emphasise the connections between us, to allow us to engage our empathy and sympathy. It was a tremendous speech, affecting and meaningful, but I remarked to him that in a hypothetical parlour game it wouldn't necessarily be the speech you would automatically match up with the fiction he writes. (He laughed. I'm not the first to have said something along these lines.)
"You can choose what you write but you can't choose what you make live. The first job is to make it jangly with energy. And in my case that often takes a little cruelty, a little dark humour," he explained. "My hope is that with all that distortion, there's still some kind of light that comes through. And it's the only way I can get the light to come through."
So now it's settled in, I asked him again, how does it feel? "It feels nice," he replied. But not so nice that he'll get carried away, besides which: "If I show up to breakfast wearing leather pants, that's not going to fly." When he's not teaching at his alma mater, Syracuse, he hunkers down at home in the northern Catskills, making more work. And when he returns from promotional tours and prize-winning, Paris-going jaunts, he is always delighted to find "that book in your study, going, 'Come here! I still suck!'"