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George and Paula Saunders Talk Empathy and the 2020 Democratic Candidates

In this episode of the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast, taped live at the Unbound Book Festival in Columbia, Missouri, George and Paula Saunders talk to hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about writing, politics, class, and the contenders for the Democratic nomination for the 2020 presidential election.

To hear the full episode, subscribe to the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast through iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app (make sure to include the forward slashes when searching). You can also listen by streaming from the player below.

Readings from the episode:

10th of December by George Saunders · Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders · Pastoralia by George Saunders · CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders · The Distance Home by Paula Saunders · War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy · “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” by Donald Barthelme · The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln by Larry Tagg · American Pastoral by Philip Roth · Grief by Anton Chekhov · Beto O’Rourke on Medium · Books by Curtis Sittenfeld · The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison · Promise Me, Dad by Joe Biden · “E Pluribus Unum?” by Stacey Abrams · Bob Hillman, “Carveresque,” from the album Some of Us Are Free, Some of Us Are Lost.


Whitney Terrell: Did you think about these characters politically when you were writing them? And did you guys talk about this book while she was working on it?

Paula Saunders: Well, we talked about it, but not in that kind of detail. I think we would talk mostly about sentences in our house.

George Saunders: It’s all we ever talk about.

PS: We really do. Yeah, we talk about sentences… But in this, it was very clear to me that we were in a struggle, that they were in a struggle over the fate of their son. And that they were playing out their gender roles. And, you know, that to me is implicitly political.

WT: My son is a gymnast, which is supposedly not a “gender-appropriate thing,” which I think is completely nuts—gymnastics is extremely cool, and he’s way in better shape than I was… But those rules still exist. It’s still a thing. He doesn’t talk about it a lot with his fellow students. He doesn’t want people to know that he does gymnastics for those same reasons. So I found that portrayal of Leon to be extremely compelling.

V.V. Ganeshananthan: I think one of the things that’s so touching about it is the ways that people are attentive and inattentive to pain, and the word “disgust” in there. And the way you can see the characters kind of sliding by each other’s pain. And when I think about politics these days, it’s inescapable for me to think about men in pain. Because it seems like a thing that a lot of people are worried that we’re sliding by, not paying enough attention to it, and especially in relation to Me Too. And where does everyone belong and everyone’s discomfort with people exceeding those roles or not sticking where they’re supposed to? And I think also the duration of time that you cover in the book really makes that vision—the cost of that, the cost of those perceived gender limits really apparent.

WT: Well, this is the “Make America Great Again” time, right? And when I was reading the book I kept thinking, “This isn’t so great, is it?”

PS: No, that’s exactly right. And when I think of this book, I think of the heart of this family and how much they really do love each other, and how much they are absolutely in shackles by their adherence to the cultural norms. They just can’t get beyond this blanket, this heavy blanket of cultural expectation to move to their own freedom and see each other as human beings. Which is what they always want to do. I’m hoping you can see that underneath, in the underpinning of it, that they want to make that human connection, but they’re totally pinned down by their cultural expectations. And this is how we learn: We learn in our families. We learn about success and failure in our families, and that gets carried out into the larger culture. So it’s a lot of undoing, but it’s a nice thing to start to be thinking about.

WT: So speaking of men in pain and cultural expectation, George…

So the metaphor would be: we’re a country that lives on a mountainside, and all the oxygen has gone up to the peak.


GS: What?

VVG: This is the kind of segue that’s a hallmark of our show.

WT: You talk about how the idea of work made its way into your fiction, and that your characters in stories in Civilwarland in Bad Decline and Pastoralia have jobs—however absurd those jobs might be—and are striving to move from being working class to in the middle class, as you did. But today, is the ability to work one’s way up from the working class to middle class gone? And that’s something that’s happening in your book, Paula, so maybe both of you can talk about this. How should Democratic candidates speak to this?

GS: If you look at all the issues we could list as political issues—and this is true regardless of if you’re on the left or the right—I think it reduces down to income inequity. The radical changes in income distribution in the last 30 years. So the metaphor would be: we’re a country that lives on a mountainside, and all the oxygen has gone up to the peak. So everyone in the middle and lower-middle classes is living in this vaguely anaerobic condition that makes people panicked. Of course, you’re gonna be on your worst behavior when you’re short of breath.

And this is not to be too nostalgic, but I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and when I was a little kid, in a city, everybody worked at an American can company, or a Nabisco, or one of those jobs. And if you were just an average—or even less than an average—a person who didn’t go to college but had a generally good work ethic, you could work. And you could own a house, and you could have your dignity.

Now, that was true of the white working class—it was different beyond that very narrow swath, and that’s a different issue, an important one. But even that, if you say, what if you took that world, broaden it to truly include everybody—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—that would be a country I could really get behind. But now I think people in the working class are in that anaerobic condition. They look up to the top, they see a big party up there and a little bit of arrogance going on, and it’s discouraging. And suddenly you don’t love your country. You think your country’s conning you a little bit, and actually it kind of is. So I would say if I were a Democratic candidate, I’d be looking mechanically: How do we get the money to come back down? Because it didn’t go up there naturally. It went up there by rules or regulations.

WT: I would like some money to come back down. That would be nice. It didn’t work for me. When I did my taxes this year, they were higher than they were last year—

GS: That’s because you’re a writer. But I think that’s really it. And of course, the other side will often say, “Oh, that’s class warfare.” But class warfare has been going on a long time, and we’ve been losing. So I think to do a little bit of forced move-down would make everyone happy, everyone healthier.

PS: I’m gonna add something to that too because I have this idea about our country as a political body. You know, in your physical body you understand that if you’re right-handed, right—you write all your checks with your right hand and you do all your work with your right hand . . . but that would never mean that you let your left hand wither. Because you understand the integrity of the physical body. But we don’t understand the integrity of the societal body and the communal body. We don’t seem to understand it, so what we have done basically is we have let this right hand that has all the function and the power become like a huge helium balloon size, and we’ve let the left hand wither and almost die, and maybe die in some instances—think of healthcare and things like that, so . . .

This idea of progress and compassion being at loggerheads isn’t really a new idea, but it’s something we need to be thinking about and talking about.

This is an understanding I think is fundamental, that we need to reverse, so that we understand we are a whole cultural body, we are a whole societal body, just like our body is a whole physical body. If we can understand that, I think we can right it somehow over time. But if we can’t understand that, I don’t see how personal greed goes out of it. I’m hoping, I’m hoping for the Democrats.

VVG: I’m so interested in this as a problem of writing because it seems like so much of American politics is built on talking about individuals and that so many failures have come from not talking about collective responsibilities and notions of collective goals. We have really a failure of language in how to articulate that, which is deeply disappointing to me. And I see it in the literature of other countries, and I see American writers working to invent language for that, and I wonder if there are writers who you think are doing that, or ways that you find yourself pushing to think about notions of the collective. Because it’s a “left” thing, right?

PS: Well, I just finished reading Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, which I thought was absolutely fascinating and fabulous because it just really talks about this whole idea of American progress. And so you progress, progress, progress through the generations to this pinnacle of progress, and then there’s this explosion because what enters the picture is compassion, and it explodes this idea of monetary progress and individual progress. So when I walked away from that, I really felt like I had read a poem that had opened a window that I hadn’t looked through before. Because I was like, “Wow, this idea of progress and compassion being at loggerheads isn’t really a new idea,” but it’s something we need to be thinking about and talking about.

GS: I’m a big fan of the Russians, and whenever I think of a political story, I think of this one by Chekhov. It’s called “Grief,” and it’s a really simple little thing. It’s just a guy whose son—he’s a cab driver or a carriage driver, really poor guy—and his son has died that morning, but he has to still work. So the story is just him trying to tell his passengers about this, and he’s not a human being to them, he’s too poor. And one guy hits him in the back of the head and says, “Just drive, shut up and drive.” So at the end of the story, when he’s got no success in communicating this, he takes the horse back to the stable, and the last bit is he leans his head against the horse’s muzzle and says, “I had a son.” So now this is 30, 40 years before the Russian Revolution, but if you want to read it politically, it’s all right there. What does a whole generation of people who have to talk to their horses to get any sympathy, what do they do?

WT: I also was a Tolstoy fan growing up, and you look at War and Peace—sorry to bring up a very long, big book—but that book is happening leading up into the Revolution. The income disparity in Russia at that time feels similar to today. It feels not that far off. And when you talk about Chekov, that feels like our society today in some ways.

GS: Yeah, I think so. And you know the weird part about it is if you’re a writer and you think, as I do, that writing has political efficacy, it’s interesting to think that all those great writers in 19th-century Russia, probably the pinnacle of certainly the short story—and then it all went to hell. So, did fiction keep the Revolution sane? No, it didn’t. You can even argue that it hastened it, and then all the sort of literary feeling went out of the culture and it became quite Bolshevik and savage. So if I ever find myself saying “fiction can save us,” well, maybe. It may be a force that pushes back against evil, but in that case, it didn’t.

What does a whole generation of people who have to talk to their horses to get any sympathy, what do they do?

VVG: So, we talked a little bit about class, and I think so much of the political coverage that we read uses the working class as code for the white working class, and you touched on that a little bit. And I know Whit has a particular other way that he thinks we should be talking about this—

WT: I think people should talk about region. If I have a hobby horse that I’m riding about the Democratic candidates it’s that the last three presidents who were Democrats were all from the South or the Midwest. It’s where we’re weak as a party in terms of votes, so it helps to have somebody from there. Carter, Bill Clinton, and Obama all had Midwest or Southern roots, and it worries me that there aren’t very many candidates like that in the race today. I mean Pete Buttigieg is the only one I know of specifically . . . You like him?

PS: I do like him. I actually really love him because he’s young and he’s a mayor and he’s got all these great ideas and he’s full of energy and he’s positive. I really like him. Knock on wood. But he’s young . . .

WT: Do you guys think region matters? Do you think about it at all in your books?

GS: I have to say, as much TV as I watch, I’m not a big political thinker. I think it does matter, as you were describing the votes. I hear this Lincoln guy is pretty good . . .

WT: Speaking of a Midwestern politician!

GS: Yeah. Well, you know, I would imagine this time around, you’re gonna need somebody on the left who can talk to the independent and the somewhat more left-leaning Trump voters, to have the courage and the heart to reach across the aisle and say, “I’m not gonna disqualify you because you voted for Trump. But let me talk to you for a minute about the things that really matter.” So in a way, it’s a way of saying, “I’m looking at somebody and he’s got the label ‘Trump supporter.’ I’m gonna take that label off for a minute and see what else are you. And then I’m gonna try to talk to those other things, another part of you and try to bring that forth.” That takes a lot of skill and a lot of heart to do that.

WT: Yeah, I also just wanna say, people often think that . . . “Midwestern politician” means I want them to speak to white men in the Midwest, but actually the Midwest—as Sugi and I talk about a lot— is a pretty diverse place, particularly in the cities.

VVG: I live in the Midwest. Every time I see one of these things— this is my one, I think, defensible use of Twitter—I go, “Still in the Midwest! Still over here! Still existing!”


WT: Anyway, so George, there are a lot of hauntings in your work. Not only in Lincoln in the Bardo, but also in Civilwarland in Bad Decline and your other collections. Very often there are warnings from the past or other places or parts of society, terrible or frightening figures that appear. But the more optimistic, and maybe most directly political part of Lincoln in the Bardo is the section where all the ghosts join together in Lincoln’s body. I read it like a literal e pluribus unum. Could you talk about that passage?

GS: Sure, so in the book, one of the conventions is that if a ghost enters a living person, they can basically ventriloquize the person and read through their thoughts. One of the things that’s not determined is whether or not the living person notices. That’s kind of the question of the book: Can a dead person, can a ghost, affect a living person?

This transcript has been edited and condensed by FnF. Transcription by Amanda Minoff.

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