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AN INTERVIEW WITH GEORGE SAUNDERS GEORGE SAUNDERS George Saunders has published two short-story collections, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia, and a children's book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Trip, with Ulustrator Lane Smith. He was recently chosen by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best American writers age forty and under. J. J. Wylie, a freelance writer, lives in Las Vegas, Nevada. He is the editor of GLOSS, and is currently finishing his first novel. 54 · The Missouri Review George Saunders An Interview with George Saunders//. /. Wylie Interviewer: Douglas Unger has called your admission to the Syracuse Creative Writing program a "grand experiment" that he and Tobias Wolff "had to fight for," one that has obviously paid off. Given your nonliterary educational background, did you feel out of place as a student there? Saunders: I was always aware that I didn't have quite the intellectual guns that a lot of the other students had. But at the same time the atmosphere was open enough with Doug and Toby that I felt it didn't matter all that much. They encouraged me to get up to speed with whichever writers worked for me without worrying about being comprehensive in my catching-up. Interviewer: Were you aware at the time that you were a "grand experiment "? Saunders: No. I felt more like a "clerical error." I didn't know that Doug and Toby had had trouble getting me in, though I was aware that many of the other students were from Ivy League English departments, whereas my undergraduate degree was in geophysics, from the Colorado School of Mines. So whUe the other students knew aU about Shelley and Keats, I knew aboutAlfred Wegener, the father ofplate tectonics , whom we affectionately used to call "Big Al." But fiction is open to whoever comes in the door, as long as you come in energetically, and so I had a feeling there was room for me. Interviewer: Vonnegut wrote something about the best education for a writer not being in English literature. Would you agree? Saunders: It depends on the writer. There's Flannery O'Connor, who got an EngUsh degree and who I think went into an M.F.A. program The Missouri Review · 55 directly after graduation. Nobody has ever suggested that her work might have been stronger had she gone out and worked on a shrimper. My background was unconventional in that Td been educated at an engineering school and had worked in the oil fields and so on and wasn't well read in any comprehensive way. The working experience was invaluable because it gave me a low-level rage, or at least a sense that there was injustice in the world and that this injustice was playing out every day on the bodies and minds of the people toward the bottom of the heap. AU that work and travel gave me a moral stance that eventually evolved into a certain prose style and set of thematic concerns. Also, those years gave me confidence to invent things, to exaggerate, to make some claims about our culture. On the other hand, almost all of the work I've done in fiction has been to compensate for my shortcomings, some of which, Tm sure, have to do with how restricted my reading experience is and how late in life I did much of that reading . For me it might have been a good thing to have come from a nontraditional background because I'm not exactly an intellectual giant. I suspect that if Td had a more extensive background in English before I started to write, I might have ended up just badly parroting other writers. But because I hadn't read enough to even know whom to parrot, the experiences of my own Ufe were what drove me to fiction. Then the task became to find a style that would do justice to these experiences and wouldn't require too many big words or complicated flashbacks. Interviewer: Your work is consistently characterized as satirical. Yet you said in an interview once that for you writing is an exercise m compassion . Don't you think that satire...


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