THE WORD FACTORY EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Paul McVeigh talks to George Saunders
Your latest book — ‘A Swim in a Pond in the Rain’ — is based on the class you teach at Syracuse University on the Russian short story. I remember Lorrie Moore writing ‘the short story is a love affair’. Do you see your relationship with these classic stories as more of a marriage? Has the relationship developed over the years or has it been a reliable constant? How do you keep the romance going?
A very good marriage, yes. They change every time I read them, and at every stage of life. I see these stories as beautifully made little snow globes — you can look through them from any angle (with any predisposition, at any time of life, in any mood) and find something true in them. There was one period when they went a little flat on me. When I first got an iPhone and was spending too much time on that and other screens, my reading got a little superficial — I wasn’t having the same deep sensory experience reading the stories that I usually did. And that was a good wakeup call — like, if your favorite meal started tasting only so-so to you, it might be good to see a doctor.
The book approaches ‘how to’ via ‘how did’… why use only Russian writers and no modern writers as examples to explore?
It was really just that I’d taught this class, and these stories, for twenty years, so I had all of that to build on. I think a book like this could use any seven (good) stories. But these were the ones I knew the best.
Also, there’s something about the age of the story that makes them very teachable; there are no modern distractions — no contemporary politics or technology or pop culture tropes to contend with. Just, you know, snowstorms and troikas, and samovars. I sometimes think of them as a series of simple pieces on the piano — studying them, we can get down to the essence of what compels us, at the most basic level, to keep listening to a piece of music.
Did you have a reader in mind when writing the book?
Sort of yes — someone who loves reading and was open to a little look under the hood, so to speak. Also, of course, aspiring writers. But as I kept working on it, I started to feel that anyone who was interested in how things work in general might find something in it — a similar book could be written about the way dance works on a person, for example, or the experience of dining out. What interested me was that process by which a mind starts out in one, relatively uninflected, state, and is then transformed by way of a mediated experience. And, when you think of it, that’s what’s happening in every instant.
Talking to you a few years ago, you seemed reluctant to discuss the writing process. How did ‘A Swim in the Pond…’ manage to break through that resistance?
I don’t really mind discussing process (I’ve been doing it in the classroom for years) but I always balk a little at the part of an interview where the questions become about my intention in writing a certain story — the sort of (very natural and interesting) questions that are essentially a form of asking, “Did you mean to do that?” or “How was that planned in?” I resist that because my process is all about quashing, or evading, overt intention. So that means that when I discuss process honestly, I have to start talking about intuition and about the fact that my stories usually unfold in ways that are not intended. And things can get a little hazy. (There’s not much “there” there.) But here, the fact that I could rewrite the process sections meant that I could keep revising until I felt I’d done justice to what is, ultimately, an irreducible thing.
Your love of teaching warms the pages of the book, warms the reader: is there an origin story for this love of teaching?
Thank you, Paul. That means a lot to me.
I had a series of wonderful teachers growing up and really felt the love in this, as its recipient. Two, in particular, in high school, literally changed my life — I mean, they gave me this nice life that I have. These two people married a few years after I had them both as teachers. Joe Lindbloom was my geology teacher and made the phone call that got me (an underperforming high school student) into college. He used to take the Friday class to ask “the big questions” of the class. Was life fair? What really mattered? What did we intend to do with our lives? There was something very ennobling and wonderful about having a grown-up ask those questions of us and really care about our answers. Sheri Lindbloom was my English teacher and I can see so much of her approach to teaching literature in this book. She exuded faith in us, her students — a feeling that we (even we) could understand the stories. That, since they were designed to speak to human concern, even we circa-1974, South Side of Chicago proto-stoners were welcome to join the party. She felt the stories to be essential to living on earth — they were telling us things we were going to need to know; understanding literature was not only something required of a citizen, it was actually a cool thing to do. And at the same time, she made it clear that it was up to us to rise to the occasion, that we had to learn how to read the stories correctly if they were going to speak to us.
I see you as an ‘emotional’ writer. Each essay in the book concerns itself with ‘What did we feel and where did we feel it?’ Could you talk about that for us?
Well, I agree with you there. I always understood reading a story to be primarily an emotional ride — a process of generating a feeling of caring within the reader. But that type of feeling also involves thought and concepts, of course. We feel something at a certain point in a story, when a character does a certain thing, in part because we’ve been constructing a meaning along the way. (When Scrooge’s voice cracks, as he talks to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, that’s moving because we understand the story as a meditation on the possibility of transformation.) I think you could use this approach even if you don’t feel “emotion” to be a useful word in relation to stories; we might just say that something happens to you as you go from the first page of “Master and Man” to the last. What was it? Where were the stages in which it happened to you? And so on.
Because, of course, everybody reads stories in his or her own way. I think and talk about stories the way I do because that way of thinking and talking about them allows me to write more and, I hope, better ones. But any way is valid, as long as it’s rigorous — as long as it makes sense, when taken against the words that are on the page.
In the end, everything is about love, would you agree?
Well, I agree with the statement but I think the hard and interesting work starts when we take it a step further: “Everything is about love. Agreed. Now what could possibly go wrong?”
In the book you say story is a ‘continual system of escalation’. Australian writer Cate Kennedy once said to me ‘plot is — things get worse’. I remember you telling me that, when you write, you follow the energy from sentence to sentence. Marinating on these thoughts, would you say that energy leans to negativity, then? Or perhaps fictional/story energy — it needs conflict/problems — how do we combat following it’s negative trajectory? What comes into the process to interrupt that trajectory?
I think stories incline to catastrophe, yes, just because one of the expectations of the form is that it will escalate. And escalation involves increased difficulty. “Little Red Riding Hood, about to go out into the woods, was told by her mother not to talk to any strangers, and especially not to any wolves. So she didn’t.” Somehow, that’s not a story. Also, this isn’t a story: “Fred built a profitable business and then he built another, also profitable, and then a third.” Somehow, strangely, this could be a story: “Fred’s first business failed. And so did his second. The third: also a big flop.” It might be interesting to think about why that is. The latter is about some defect in Fred, which is interesting, whereas the former is about some virtue Fred possesses and sounds boring. Unless Fred’s fourth business flops, or he gets tired of success and self-sabotages. Poor Fred. He must lose, if he wants to be in a story.
But, of course, “things get worse” is the trajectory of life. “We are born young and healthy and then get old and sick and die.” But we also understand that it’s not what happens, that makes life good or bad, it’s our reaction to the goodness and badness; the system that we’ve made for enduring it all, we might say. And we also know that, even within the general decline, there’s real glory. So I think all of that pertains to stories. (To me, it feels like the “things getting worse” is, let’s say, a prevailing tide. But we look to see how different people are coping with that tide.)
And if, in a story, disaster happens, that doesn’t necessarily make it a “negative” story. We might think of “Death of Ivan Illych,” by Tolstoy, in which a guy learns, only at the very end of his life, that he’s lived in entirely the wrong way, and then screams for this last day on earth. Doesn’t sound very cheerful, and it’s not, but under that story is a lovely, transcendent one — he realizes, at the last moment, how he should have lived. And the other thing that makes that story a celebration is how beautifully it’s told — how well it does the work it takes on.
So I find myself trying to find places within my stories to credit the goodness within us, but in a way that isn’t false or sentimental. What ways are there of being honorable on a sinking ship? That sort of thing.
A Swim In A Pond In The Rain by George Saunders and The Good Son by Paul McVeigh are available at the Word Factory bookshop: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/wordfactoryuk
Paul McVeigh is the editor of ‘The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working Class Voices’ which includes new work from Roddy Doyle, Kevin Barry and Danielle McLaughlin. Available to pre-order now.