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 Iâve looked at them again for this conversation, Iâm 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 â to predict, which I think is probably a foolâs 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 hasnât existed yet.
For example, in my story âJon,â I came to that odd diction by way of one of my undergraduate studentâs written responses to Kakfaâs âThe Metamorphosis,â which began: âUpon perusing this work of literature, I felt myself at a distinct tilt.â And I thought: Jeez, that is great â off, somehow, and yet also oddly communicative of … something. I felt a strong urge to imitate that fragment â 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 âthe stream of milk and the stream of honey enjoin to make that river of sweet-tasting goodness.â So then I had to ask: What conditions would have to pertain to cause a kid to talk this way â 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 â trying to come up with the simplest answer to the question: âKid, why are you talking like that?â
Egan: Itâs 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 canât really talk about where without talking about when.
One of my early books, âLook at Me,â began with an obsession with Midwestern Americaâs 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 weâve 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 â 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 âLook at Me,â and some of what I imagined as wacky hypotheticals â for example, a type of self-branding reality-TV-ish website I called Ordinary People â 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, youâre a realist!
Saunders: What about âA Visit From the Goon Squad,â which starts as what we feel is a ârealistâ text, in our time â 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 heâs 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 heâs middle-aged, Iâm into the future. I thought, Well, O.K., maybe itâs not 2006 when heâs in his 20s, maybe itâs 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 wouldnât 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 thatâs 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 âEscape From Spiderhead.â 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 canât really even remember why. I just had some text where the guy was sort of a fumbler. But Iâd 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 â from low to high â to express what heâs perceiving with more precision, and in a better vocabulary. And then this name popped into my head: Verbaluceâ¢.
Egan: How can I get a prescription? When I think about a book like âA Clockwork Orange,â which I really loved, the weird hybrid language is what I remember most. And even though I donât start with language like you do, Iâm 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 âGoon Squad.â 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 âA Clockwork Orangeâ 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.
Iâve always had, since I was a little kid first starting to read, an aversion to language that felt flat, or too ânormal.â I remember having that response to some of our reading books: âDavid, a kindly stout boy, walked up his street, past trees and houses.â And I just felt like, first, âKill me,â and second, âThat is a lie.â 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 Iâve heard called âconsensus reality.â This is maybe a bit of a neurosis of mine. So as you try through revision to depart from that flatness, what youâre really doing, ritually, is destabilizing your lazy habitual perceptions.
If you write (God forbid): âJim, a successful insurance executive, walked into the Holiday Inn lobby in a happy, cheerful spirit,â and read what youâve written, and almost throw up, well, what youâll want to do in revision is purge the prose of whatever it was that sickened you: âJim (happy, cheerful Jim) once again dragged himself into the freaking Holiday Inn.â So now Jimâs happy cheerfulness reads as something heâs 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: âJim (happy, cheerful Jim) once again dragged his tired, divorced ass into the freaking Macomb, Ill., Holiday Inn, MindGetting (out of sheer boredom) âApril 1, 1865/this geog/pretty girl,â and then, thankfully (for the 10-second window allowed by his âPremier TimeTravelâ pass), was transformed into Maggie OâDoole, who stood looking down at her hoop skirt, then up at the lobby, which now was a Midwestern meadow, one lone hawk circling overhead.â
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 âMindGetsâ (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 ârevising via contempt.â My unhappiness with what Iâd written led to that lurch, which led to: the future, or something that sounds as if itâs meant to be the future.
Egan: I think form has worked that way for me â as a bridge into a different world that can comfortably and naturally contain it. It happened with Twitter. Iâd been interested for a long time in using it to write fiction â not so much because of the small structural units, which Twitter obviously didnât 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?
This is how I came to write âBlack Box.â 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 âGoon Squad.â And then the notion that sheâs not telling the story directly, as in, âI did this, I did that,â but instead sheâs just listing the lessons she takes away from each thing that happens. âI pretended to hear a noiseâ becomes âHaving heard something inaudible to others puts you in an immediate position of authority.â So I ended up with this very indirect form of narration that makes sense as a series of discrete dispatches â as tweets. If Iâd 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 âBlack Boxâ 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 wasnât feasible. And because I was writing about a character from âA Visit From the Goon Squad,â 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 didnât actually think of inserting any âfuturisticâ innovations until the moment Iâm wondering, Oh, my God, how can she spy if she canât 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: âGod, itâs such a pain to carry a tape recorder around â canât we just install it in the body?â 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 thatâs 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 thereâd be a busy signal. It wasnât 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. Whatâs happened since, we all know.
So my experience of that trajectory â from the phone ringing and ringing to the kind of hyperenmeshment thatâs possible now and will ultimately be the norm â that feels like a story I need to tell. Itâs 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 thatâs probably obsessed me more than any other, starting with my first novel, âThe Invisible Circusâ: how does image culture reach into our inner lives? Does it change who we are to ourselves? That was explicitly on my mind with âLook at Me.â And I guess what Iâve found, more and more, is that itâs 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 Iâd like to someday take on in a work of âfuturisticâ fiction is our increasing materialism â 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 â 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 âeffectiveâ (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, Iâd say. But interesting.
Iâm 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 âget it right.â Itâs 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 wouldnât want to confuse ourselves by thinking that the âcorrect depictionâ of that time was the goal.
Egan: Iâm curious what period are you writing about, and what led you to do that?
Saunders: Yeah, Iâm going to be a little secretive about it, as sort of a mojo-protection move. … but itâs 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. Itâs also got a supernatural element. So, weirdly, although itâs ostensibly âhistorical,â it actually feels more like a sci-fi story than anything Iâve ever done before. Thereâs a heavy element of world-building â figuring out the internal rules of the place and so on.
Egan: It sounds kind of steampunk â in a good way. Iâm also working on a novel that takes place in the past. But what Iâm doing is much closer to home, the 1930s and â40s. One thing Iâve found tricky about the â30s and â40s is knowing what the past looked and felt like at that time. Because thatâs 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 youâre writing forward, because their past, or part of it, would be our present. Writing about the past, I donât have that luxury; Iâm just heading further into the past, and further away from what I know. Even though I donât 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.
Egan: Yes and no. Thereâs something wonderfully artificial about movies and newscasts from that time, those tight, quasi-English accents everyone seemed to have. I canât imagine people actually talked that way. So thereâs 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, âItâs not about this, itâs about that … ,â when honestly, I never heard the phrase âItâs aboutâ until after 1990.
Saunders: With the 19th century, you can say, âYeah, well, we have no idea how they actually talked.â I read this really interesting thing online, when I was trying to figure out how (or if) people in the 19th century swore â and it was basically that all the words we have, they had. And they had a few we donât 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 â 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 Iâm really just appearing to pretend to do a time-specific diction. Basically riffing on what we, now, acknowledge to be â19th-century diction.â I mean, I read a lot of stuff from the period and let it sort of seep into me â but what relation âmyâ 19th-century diction has with the actual is very unclear. And anyway, what Iâve noticed is that whether Iâm doing the future or the past, Iâm doing a kind of ânudge-nudge wink-winkâ with the reader, like: âO.K., weâre in the future. Right? But not really. Iâm going to pretend to be writing about the past (or the future), and weâre going to enjoy the fact that Iâm not really doing it assiduously.â 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 â 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 thatâs not what I do anymore! Iâve 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, thereâs 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 â 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 Iâve been forced into a different mode, I realize that Iâm 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. Thatâs another literary realm with a long history, back to the 18th century. One futuristic novel that had a huge impact on me was Mary Shelleyâs âFrankenstein,â which is kind of science fiction plus Gothic. So those genres share a root. I wrote a Gothic novel called âThe Keep,â and working in the Gothic was freeing in some of the same ways weâve 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 â70s. …
Egan: Adam Begley, an author and book reviewer, referred to your stories as âpost-real,â which I really like. I take it to mean that youâre depicting worlds where ârealityâ 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 Iâm writing, I like to just allow myself one exaggerated or impossible element. So in something like âThe Semplica-Girl Diaries,â the only unreal thing is the fact of the existence of these âSemplica-Girlsâ â which are these living lawn elements: third-world women being paid to hang on a wire in oneâs yard. Other than that, itâs our world. Therefore, whatever energy comes off the story is about our world. Itâs like, if you dropped into a family on some unusual day (someone has died, or won an Oscar) â thatâs 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, âThe Metamorphosisâ 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 thatâs post-real without being futuristic, exactly, is Ralph Ellisonâs âInvisible Man.â 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. Itâs the same way with the most powerful futuristic books â for me theyâve always been the ones where elements of the present day are sculpted into exaggerated forms: men dominating women in Margaret Atwoodâs âThe Handmaidâs Tale,â or Cold War anxiety in âA Wrinkle in Timeâ and â1984.â
Saunders: Yes â and those books, especially the Ellison, seem to oppose the normative by refusing to play by ârealistâ rules â which can sometimes serve as reactionary tools.
This Russian writer Mikhail Zoshchenko wrote, âMan is excellently made and eagerly lives the kind of life that is being lived.â I love the idea that thereâs this thing we might call human tendency, and itâs 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 âbeing humanâ lays out in a certain way. Or itâs 1840, and youâre living in Iceland, and human tendency drapes itself over whatever is going on there and â âbeing humanâ 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 âbeing humanâ looks yet another way.
Likewise, if we drape that tendency blanket over some imagined future time where everybodyâs 80 percent prosthetic, itâs still the same blanket. So the writerâs ultimate concentration should be on the blanket, not on whatâs underneath it. What writing can do uniquely, I think, is show us fundamental human tendencies, and the ways these tendencies lead to suffering â Faulknerâs good old âhuman heart in conflict with itselfâ idea. Thatâs what weâre really interested in, I think, and why we turn to literature.