This past weekend, The New York Times Magazine published a conversation about craft between two fiction writers whose wildly inventive feats with language and structure never feel forced; instead, they pull readers deeper into the story, closer to the characters. Beginning with Egan’s very first question, the exchange reads like a master class in narrative mechanics.
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?”
— from Choose Your Own Adventure: A Conversation With Jennifer Egan and George Saunders; New York Times Magazine, November 15, 2015