Home / Technology / The Future Issue: Choose Your Own Adventure: A Conversation With Jennifer Egan and George Saunders

The Future Issue: Choose Your Own Adventure: A Conversation With Jennifer Egan and George Saunders

Jennifer Egan: I want to start by talking about how we define writing about the future. Some things that I think of as futuristic, when I’ve looked at them again for this conversation, I’m not sure they really are. So I guess my question would be: What leads you into territory that feels futuristic? How do you end up there? And what makes it the future?

George Saunders: Well, I never really have any desire to be a futurist — to predict, which I think is probably a fool’s errand. Mostly I just want to get into some exciting new language space. I might stumble on an intriguing kind of language and go: Who is talking this way, and why? And then I back-calculate a surrounding world that allows me to keep doing that voice. Sometimes it turns out to be a world that hasn’t existed yet.

For example, in my story “Jon,” I came to that odd diction by way of one of my undergraduate student’s written responses to Kakfa’s “The Metamorphosis,” which began: “Upon perusing this work of literature, I felt myself at a distinct tilt.” And I thought: Jeez, that is great — off, somehow, and yet also oddly communicative of … something. I felt a strong urge to imitate that fragment — to riff on it. I did about five pages of that, and of course it spun off into being something different: a combo of Valley speech and corporatese, in which the speaker (whoever he was) kept lurching into commercial metaphors whenever he had something deep he wanted to express. For example, when he first falls in love, he can only express how intense this is by comparing it to a commercial for Honey Grahams, in which “the stream of milk and the stream of honey enjoin to make that river of sweet-tasting goodness.” So then I had to ask: What conditions would have to pertain to cause a kid to talk this way — equal parts adman, stoner, New Age guru? What I came up with was that he had a chip in his neck that contained every commercial ever made, and had lived his whole life in some sort of corporate facility. But that process was very mechanical — trying to come up with the simplest answer to the question: “Kid, why are you talking like that?”

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Egan: It’s interesting that your entry point to fiction is language. Mine is almost always place: a sense of an atmosphere, a location. I tend to have that before I have the people or even the language. Who is talking from this place, or about this place, and why? And that ends up being the story. Time is always a component of place; you can’t really talk about where without talking about when.

One of my early books, “Look at Me,” began with an obsession with Midwestern America’s industrial past. O.K., so who has that obsession and why? The voice of a mentally unbalanced professor began to emerge, someone terrified of the future, someone who thinks we’ve lost our connection to concrete values and believes he can solve that problem by studying every aspect of the history of Rockford, Ill., where he lives (and where my mom grew up). And as a counter, a slightly futuristic vision of New York media culture began to absorb me, where a crazy level of self-branding and self-exposure were the norm — beyond what seemed possible. I hoped it would be funny. This was in the 1990s, before Internet use was pervasive. I had never been online when I imagined a lot of that novel, and I was projecting forward into what I thought was extreme, goofy satire.

But I took a long time to write “Look at Me,” and some of what I imagined as wacky hypotheticals — for example, a type of self-branding reality-TV-ish website I called Ordinary People — had already started to come true by the time I published it. I learned you have to move fast, writing futuristic satire in America: Before you know it, you’re a realist!

Saunders: What about “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” which starts as what we feel is a “realist” text, in our time – and then takes that leap forward into the future? Was that your intention from the outset?

Egan: Not at all! I was basically thrust into the future under protest, by my timeline and the organizing principle of the book, which was to follow characters, laterally, into their lives at different points. I wanted to pursue this character named Alex into middle age and see what he was like then. But he’s in his early 20s in around 2006, in the first chapter of the book. So that made things very difficult for me, because by the time he’s middle-aged, I’m into the future. I thought, Well, O.K., maybe it’s not 2006 when he’s in his 20s, maybe it’s much earlier, maybe the entire timeline of the book could be moved back. But after a couple of minutes of thinking about that, I realized it wouldn’t work at all, especially musically, because I wanted to write about punk rock. And I would have been back with Elvis, practically, just to get Alex into his 40s in 2009. It just was impossible. I had to go forward.

Saunders: I think that’s one of the pleasures of that move into the future: The reader feels that it comes out of an organic, narrative need that your story has created. This sort of thing happened with my story “Escape From Spiderhead.” I had written a first few pages purposely running at about 70 percent articulateness. I was trying to do a kind of slightly dumbed-down voice. I can’t really even remember why. I just had some text where the guy was sort of a fumbler. But I’d done voices like that in a few previous stories and was getting tired of it, and felt like goofing around in a higher verbal register. So I wrote some prose that was, you know, almost like Henry James on stupid pills, but it was the best I could do. So then I had that text sitting alongside some of that 70 percent text. And thought, How might I get those two modes of expression into the same story? Just, mechanically, how can I justify having those two first-person monologues attributed to the same character? And I thought: Oh, a drug. And whatever that drug was, it had to allow his diction to go from this to that — from low to high — to express what he’s perceiving with more precision, and in a better vocabulary. And then this name popped into my head: Verbaluce™.

Egan: How can I get a prescription? When I think about a book like “A Clockwork Orange,” which I really loved, the weird hybrid language is what I remember most. And even though I don’t start with language like you do, I’m happy if I can somehow get to different language when I imagine forward. In a way, that was what writing a chapter in PowerPoint did for me in “Goon Squad.” I had been dying to use PowerPoint as a genre for fiction, but I found that using it in any present-day story felt completely lame: static and mannered and corporate, but it felt strange and interesting, like a different language, when I was telling a future story. Was “A Clockwork Orange” an important book for you?

Saunders: It was. I found it thrilling because it seemed that, as Anthony Burgess focused his attention on inventing a new language, that process was simultaneously creating a new world. It felt like language and world were sort of co-creating each other.

I’ve always had, since I was a little kid first starting to read, an aversion to language that felt flat, or too “normal.” I remember having that response to some of our reading books: “David, a kindly stout boy, walked up his street, past trees and houses.” And I just felt like, first, “Kill me,” and second, “That is a lie.” That flat language is not doing justice to reality. I just have no interest in writing in a style that complies too closely with what I’ve heard called “consensus reality.” This is maybe a bit of a neurosis of mine. So as you try through revision to depart from that flatness, what you’re really doing, ritually, is destabilizing your lazy habitual perceptions.

If you write (God forbid): “Jim, a successful insurance executive, walked into the Holiday Inn lobby in a happy, cheerful spirit,” and read what you’ve written, and almost throw up, well, what you’ll want to do in revision is purge the prose of whatever it was that sickened you: “Jim (happy, cheerful Jim) once again dragged himself into the freaking Holiday Inn.” So now Jim’s happy cheerfulness reads as something he’s tired of, and faking. Which is, to my ear, at least, a little better. And if you feel, as I would, an aversion to now having to laboriously try to describe a Holiday Inn, you might shake things up by invention: As in: “Jim (happy, cheerful Jim) once again dragged his tired, divorced ass into the freaking Macomb, Ill., Holiday Inn, MindGetting (out of sheer boredom) ‘April 1, 1865/this geog/pretty girl,’ and then, thankfully (for the 10-second window allowed by his ‘Premier TimeTravel’ pass), was transformed into Maggie O’Doole, who stood looking down at her hoop skirt, then up at the lobby, which now was a Midwestern meadow, one lone hawk circling overhead.”

What the hell does all of that (which just now came out in a spontaneous language lurch, away from banality) even mean? Well, it would appear that Jim has a computer in his head, and that he “MindGets” (a verb, seems like) a subroutine designed to transform him into a PRETTY GIRL, on APRIL 1, 1865, in THIS GEOGRAPHY (i.e., the meadow in which the Holiday Inn now stands). This is what I heard a young writer recently describe as “revising via contempt.” My unhappiness with what I’d written led to that lurch, which led to: the future, or something that sounds as if it’s meant to be the future.

Egan: I think form has worked that way for me — as a bridge into a different world that can comfortably and naturally contain it. It happened with Twitter. I’d been interested for a long time in using it to write fiction — not so much because of the small structural units, which Twitter obviously didn’t invent, but the sense of these utterances appearing digitally one after another from some distant place. I kept thinking, what kind of story would need to be told that way? How can it not just feel like a conventional story broken down and delivered sequentially?

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This is how I came to write “Black Box.” An atmosphere began to come to me: somewhere on the Mediterranean, with all its mythic echoes. A woman spying in that region. The idea of the spy being Lulu, a character from “Goon Squad.” And then the notion that she’s not telling the story directly, as in, “I did this, I did that,” but instead she’s just listing the lessons she takes away from each thing that happens. “I pretended to hear a noise” becomes “Having heard something inaudible to others puts you in an immediate position of authority.” So I ended up with this very indirect form of narration that makes sense as a series of discrete dispatches — as tweets. If I’d tried to write it conventionally, it would have been kind of cheesy James Bond, really familiar stuff. The structural weirdness was the essential element, the way in.

Saunders: In “Black Box” I love the idea of the androidish spy paraphernalia. Where did that idea come from?

Egan: Well, I had this female spy posing as a beauty. And I wanted her to be able to record things by camera and audio. And I knew that there was no way she could carry equipment because she was mostly just in a bikini or whatever, that just wasn’t feasible. And because I was writing about a character from “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” who could only be in her 30s if the story was happening in the 2030s, I knew I was in the future. That turned out to be very convenient, but I didn’t actually think of inserting any “futuristic” innovations until the moment I’m wondering, Oh, my God, how can she spy if she can’t carry any equipment? Oh wait, I get it, the equipment is inside her!

Saunders: I also love the way that, in that situation, your mind ran forward in the same way that the mind of the (eventual, forthcoming) inventor of that thing will; something like: “God, it’s such a pain to carry a tape recorder around — can’t we just install it in the body?” Your mind, your human creativity, created a need and a way of satisfying that need, in the same way the eventual inventors of those things will. So maybe that’s part of what writers do in this futurist mode: They model certain logically nascent eventualities.

Egan: When I was 18, I went to Europe alone with a backpack. And if I wanted to call home in San Francisco, I would wait in line at one of those international call centers, get to a phone, make the call, and the best case scenario was that someone would answer. But you know, just as often, it would either ring and ring and ring, or there’d be a busy signal. It wasn’t until I was in college that the answering machine came along. From the time I was born until then, I witnessed all of one telecommunications development. What’s happened since, we all know.

So my experience of that trajectory — from the phone ringing and ringing to the kind of hyperenmeshment that’s possible now and will ultimately be the norm — that feels like a story I need to tell. It’s also an essential factor in a lot of other stories of our time, like the rise of modern terrorism, and globalization. And it raises the question that’s probably obsessed me more than any other, starting with my first novel, “The Invisible Circus”: how does image culture reach into our inner lives? Does it change who we are to ourselves? That was explicitly on my mind with “Look at Me.” And I guess what I’ve found, more and more, is that it’s hard to ask questions like that without also imagining forward, because everything is moving so fast. The present is already the past, technologically. I know that now.

Saunders: One topic I’d like to someday take on in a work of “futuristic” fiction is our increasing materialism — we are coming to believe that our minds are entirely sufficient to understand the universe in its entirety. This means a shrinking respect for mystery — religion vanishing as a meaningful part of our lives (or being used, in its fundamentalist forms, to beat back mystery, rather than engage it); an increasing acceptance that if something is “effective” (profitable, stockholder-enhancing), then that answers all questions of its morality. This insistence on the literal and provable and data-based and pragmatic leaves us, I think, only partly human. What will the future look like, given that premise? Bleak, I’d say. But interesting.

I’m actually working on a novel based in the past now, and to me, there are some parallels between writing about the future and writing about the past. Neither interests me at all, if the intention is just to “get it right.” It’s nearly impossible to recreate a past mind-set, and also, why bother? That mind-set already existed, if you see what I mean. The goal of a work of fiction is, in my view, to say something, about how life is for us, not at any particular historical moment (past or present or future) but at every single moment. By necessity, we have to choose some precise time to depict, but we wouldn’t want to confuse ourselves by thinking that the “correct depiction” of that time was the goal.

Egan: I’m curious what period are you writing about, and what led you to do that?

Saunders: Yeah, I’m going to be a little secretive about it, as sort of a mojo-protection move. … but it’s the 19th century. And the motivation for doing it was just this really cool, sad story I heard around 1998 For years, I was playing with that idea in different modes and screwing it up, and then one day I had a little insight into how I might do it. It’s also got a supernatural element. So, weirdly, although it’s ostensibly “historical,” it actually feels more like a sci-fi story than anything I’ve ever done before. There’s a heavy element of world-building — figuring out the internal rules of the place and so on.

Egan: It sounds kind of steampunk — in a good way. I’m also working on a novel that takes place in the past. But what I’m doing is much closer to home, the 1930s and ’40s. One thing I’ve found tricky about the ’30s and ’40s is knowing what the past looked and felt like at that time. Because that’s so much of what the present is. What do people miss? What feels new to them? When someone seems old-fashioned, what does that mean? What time are they harking back to? This element of knowing the past is obviously easier if you’re writing forward, because their past, or part of it, would be our present. Writing about the past, I don’t have that luxury; I’m just heading further into the past, and further away from what I know. Even though I don’t write autobiographically, moving outside of my lifetime makes it much harder to connect to the atmosphere I really need to be able to do anything. And a lot of that atmosphere, the textures that make up a moment, have to do with what came before it. So the research has been way beyond what I envisioned.

Saunders: That period seems like it might actually be harder than the 19th century, because we have a better idea of how they actually talked in 1932, from movies and so on.

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Egan: Yes and no. There’s something wonderfully artificial about movies and newscasts from that time, those tight, quasi-English accents everyone seemed to have. I can’t imagine people actually talked that way. So there’s a fair amount of leeway. What I think about most is probably just avoiding jargon and metaphors that draw on contemporary experience or usage. I go nuts when I read, in something set in the past, “It’s not about this, it’s about that … ,” when honestly, I never heard the phrase “It’s about” until after 1990.

Saunders: With the 19th century, you can say, “Yeah, well, we have no idea how they actually talked.” I read this really interesting thing online, when I was trying to figure out how (or if) people in the 19th century swore — and it was basically that all the words we have, they had. And they had a few we don’t use anymore. The only reason we know this (the texts of that day having been pretty heavily censored and controlled) is that judges insisted that the court records be verbatim — and yes, people swore.

I found that the only way I could approach writing something in the 19th century was to give myself a sort of free pass on accuracy. So I think I’m really just appearing to pretend to do a time-specific diction. Basically riffing on what we, now, acknowledge to be “19th-century diction.” I mean, I read a lot of stuff from the period and let it sort of seep into me — but what relation “my” 19th-century diction has with the actual is very unclear. And anyway, what I’ve noticed is that whether I’m doing the future or the past, I’m doing a kind of “nudge-nudge wink-wink” with the reader, like: “O.K., we’re in the future. Right? But not really. I’m going to pretend to be writing about the past (or the future), and we’re going to enjoy the fact that I’m not really doing it assiduously.” Because the real goal is not precise depiction, but using the apparent effort of precise depiction as a source of context and fun.

Egan: In writing my new book, I presumed there would be a tricky connection to the present that might take the form of leaps into it, or winks, as you say — some sort of bargain between narrator and reader that was more complicated than We Are Now in the Past. But the book has resisted that kind of narrative interference absolutely. It was a nonstarter every time I tried it. Only a kind of straightforward, immersive narration seemed to work. I thought, But that’s not what I do anymore! I’ve always been willing to try anything, and it turns out the book had very different ideas about how it needed to be written than I was expecting. And it also turns out that for me, verisimilitude is actually harder than formal trickiness.

Of course, there’s no way to write a book set in the recent past without both reader and writing being keenly aware of what comes next, and I think the book is saturated with that awareness, but I had to find much subtler ways of acknowledging it and using it than I had imagined. And writing somewhat straightforwardly about the past has meant letting go of my obsession with media culture — the topic that led me to look for new forms in the first place. Maybe technology had become a hobbyhorse without my knowing it. Now that I’ve been forced into a different mode, I realize that I’m actually pretty sick of writing in tricky ways about image culture. So the new novel has become a delivery out of that, at least for now.

To me your new novel sounds kind of Gothic. That’s another literary realm with a long history, back to the 18th century. One futuristic novel that had a huge impact on me was Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” which is kind of science fiction plus Gothic. So those genres share a root. I wrote a Gothic novel called “The Keep,” and working in the Gothic was freeing in some of the same ways we’ve talked about with the future. I could have a murderous, 100-year-old baroness who seduces a young male visitor in her castle, then leaves a trail of ashes behind in the bed. Hard to do that with verisimilitude.

Saunders: Yes, that almost never happens to me anymore. But wow, back in the ’70s. …

Egan: Adam Begley, an author and book reviewer, referred to your stories as “post-real,” which I really like. I take it to mean that you’re depicting worlds where “reality” is not as we conventionally define it. You talked about language being your bridge into the future; what kind of bridge leads you into the post-real? Is it language too, or something else?

Saunders: When I’m writing, I like to just allow myself one exaggerated or impossible element. So in something like “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” the only unreal thing is the fact of the existence of these “Semplica-Girls” — which are these living lawn elements: third-world women being paid to hang on a wire in one’s yard. Other than that, it’s our world. Therefore, whatever energy comes off the story is about our world. It’s like, if you dropped into a family on some unusual day (someone has died, or won an Oscar) — that’s a great chance to learn something new about the essence of that family, that might not be as visible on a normal day. This is the Kafka model, I think: other than the fact that Samsa wakes up as a bug, “The Metamorphosis” is running on fairly realist energy. That Prague works about the same as the real Prague of that time, except: guy turns into a bug.

Egan: Another novel that’s post-real without being futuristic, exactly, is Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” His protagonist exists in a kind of expressionistic solitude that feels like an exaggerated version of the world many of us would recognize, with its racism and inequalities. The novel has a slightly skewed relationship to the real world, which first of all gives Ellison much more freedom, allows the book to be strange in ways that it would not be if he were shackled by verisimilitude. It pushes it into the realm of myth or archetype, or maybe even cartoon in moments. It’s the same way with the most powerful futuristic books — for me they’ve always been the ones where elements of the present day are sculpted into exaggerated forms: men dominating women in Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” or Cold War anxiety in “A Wrinkle in Time” and “1984.”

Saunders: Yes — and those books, especially the Ellison, seem to oppose the normative by refusing to play by “realist” rules — which can sometimes serve as reactionary tools.

This Russian writer Mikhail Zoshchenko wrote, “Man is excellently made and eagerly lives the kind of life that is being lived.” I love the idea that there’s this thing we might call human tendency, and it’s like a big blanket that gets draped over whatever conditions a given time period has produced. So you know, the Spanish Inquisition comes along, and human tendency gets draped over that historical reality, and “being human” lays out in a certain way. Or it’s 1840, and you’re living in Iceland, and human tendency drapes itself over whatever is going on there and — “being human” looks another way. Same blanket, different manifestation. The Internet shows up, and social media and so on, and the blanket of our human tendency gets draped over all of that, and “being human” looks yet another way.

Likewise, if we drape that tendency blanket over some imagined future time where everybody’s 80 percent prosthetic, it’s still the same blanket. So the writer’s ultimate concentration should be on the blanket, not on what’s underneath it. What writing can do uniquely, I think, is show us fundamental human tendencies, and the ways these tendencies lead to suffering — Faulkner’s good old “human heart in conflict with itself” idea. That’s what we’re really interested in, I think, and why we turn to literature.

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