your short stories always have interesting plots--an aunt returning
from the dead, guy working as cave man in theme park, etc.--it's
the voices of these stories (for me, at least) that make them so
memorable. In fact, when I remember your stories, I remember the
voices: the rhythms, the repetition, the idiosyncratic logic, the
corporate-babble, the exuberance, the wisecracks. Can you talk a
bit about the importance of voice in your fiction, and how you come
to discover the voices of your characters?
GS: Basically, I work at voice through constant anal-retentive revising.
The criteria is basically ear-driven - I keep changing it until
it sounds right and it surprises me in some way. I think it has
something to do with a thing we did in Chicago back when I was a
kid, this constant mimicking of other people, invented people, famous
people. It was this weird historical moment where impressionists
like Rich Little and Frank Gorshin were mini-heroes among my set
of kids. So it has something to do with that. And then of course
voice and plot get all tangled up -- a certain plot point is interesting,
or attainable, or believable, in and only in a certain voice. The
belief of the reader is engaged with the voice and then you pull
your fast one. So it's all tied up together somehow. A character
whose voice expresses limited intelligence, for example, we are
more likely to believe him getting duped by somebody. That sort
of thing. But writing, I would contend, is basically entertainment
(with that word defined a little exclusively) and so voice is part
of that entertainment.
MV: OK, so two related questions: What is your conception of what
your stories do, or try to do, in terms of entertainment? And what
does pulling your "fast one" entail?
GS: I guess by "fast one" I just meant: you cause action, and the
reader believes it. You say the wedding is disrupted by an earthquake,
and instead of suspecting you of trying to ratchet up the tension
or trying to delay the marriage so the groom can find out about
the pregnancy caused by his brother, etc, you just see the earthquake,
if that makes sense. Because fiction is not only lying, it's lying
to someone who knows you're lying. So to me, language is the distracting
thing that makes the other effects possible. Which leads back to
your question about entertainment. I think I would simply say that
yes, I want my reader to be entertained -- but then I guess I would
have to qualify that, and say that I envision my reader as being
very smart and worldly and cognizant of the fact that he or she
has only a short time on the planet in the best case, and so they
are looking for a sort of 'entertainment' that has to do with intensity
and depth and does not have to do with facile kicks or stupidity
MV: So how does the writing process usually unfold for you? I'm
thinking of something like your recent story, "Jon," which, for
me, was one of your most surprising yet-not only because of syntax
and word choice, but also because it's told from the perspective
of a kid who's grown up in some corporate research lab, as a test
subject whose memories are mostly commercials and who gets daily
doses of mood-altering drugs. How does a story like that come about?
Do you begin with the concept? Do you hear a voice first? Is it
image-triggered? Or does it depend on the story?
GS: Every one seems to proceed differently, unfortunately. "Jon,"
came out of a confluence of different, unrelated things: I sort
of had that voice in my head, as a result of a stilted reading I
gave and the resulting desire to really bust something out. And:
a Frontline piece on youth marketing. And: the fact that my daughter's
guinea pig had babies, which I then had to gender-segregate, in
adjacent cages, because guinea pigs have no scruples, and are perfectly
happy trying to hump family members. So the pathetic sight of the
Boy Pigs standing on their little back legs, so as to gaze over
at the Girl Pigs, inspired the Boys/Girls thing. Basically I just
try to let multiple things in, even if there's not apparent relation,
in the hope that something lively will result. And then the things
you've "chosen" -- voice, subject, etc -- shape what happens next.
But as I say, it's different every time, which is what makes it
so frustrating but also fun.
MV: You have talked before about how important revision is to your
work, about how you keep only about 40% of what you produce. Was
revision something that came naturally? Or was it something you
had to learn?
GS: Definitely something I had to learn. And to tell the truth,
it's a little more complicated than I make it out to be. Sometimes
it feels like the compression is happening in real-time. I might
feel particularly "in" the moment of the story. Other times, it's
this process of cranking out some text and seeing what can be cut.
The cutting produces a clarifying or energizing effect. The constant,
I suppose, is this sense that ultimately I control the process,
and that the more patient I can be (patient meaning not consenting
to call something Done until I really feel satisfied that I've been
up every cul de sac) the better the story (or sentence, or paragraph)
will be. Having said that, I should also say that this frequently
(like today, for example) leads me to this too-frugal state, where
I can't really get anything to feel joyful or fun. So it's kind
of a double-edged sword. It's also a nearly spiritual practice of
constantly being strict with yourself, but not too strict, because
then the lights go out, or being generous, but not too generous
with yourself, because then the sharpness goes out. A very enjoyable
way to torture one's self for a lifetime.
MV: "The End of Firpo in the World," one of my very favorite stories--about
a fat kid (Cody) on a bike that gets hit by a car--ends with an
old guy (a "stickman with hairy nips") chanting "You are beautiful,
God loves you, you are beautiful in His sight." For me, that is
an amazingly tender and sad ending. Since everybody in Cody's world
seems to think he's a loser, Cody thinks the stickman's utterance
is just a product of madness. It's also a highly spiritual moment,
since the stickman is offering a kind of benediction for Cody's
life. What did you have in mind as you wrote this ending? Am I right
to take the spiritual content seriously - that is, did you intend
the spiritual register to resonate in a way that is unironic? If
so, could you elaborate on that point?
GS: Well, I guess it depends on what you mean by spiritual. I mostly
intended for it to be moving, in the sense that it would be felt
as true. That is, that the cruelest thing about cruelty is that
it sometimes convinces its object that that object is worthless.
And we all know, in our hearts, that nobody is worthless, or beneath
pity. So what got me into that story was this idea that some people
go through their whole lives secretly believing all the negative
signals mindlessly given out about them, and that this state of
affairs completely colors their ability to give and receive love.
Even in that moment of death, we are still, I suppose, thinking
habitually, with the same old mind we've had all along. So Cody's
version of death-time transcendence is to finally do what he thinks
everyone has wanted him to do all along, namely, admit he is worthless.
The spiritual part, for me, consists in just believing that every
moment and every person is a sort of spiritual playground -- whatever
God is, or is not, is fully knowable in the smallest fragment of
reality. Trying to believe that more and more is what my spiritual
life (such as it is) is about. And writing is certainly a major
part of that effort.
MV: To what books do you find yourself returning? And what are you
GS: I go back to Waiting for Godot, King Lear, Dead Souls, Red Cavalry,
all of Chekhov's stories, Confederacy of Dunces. I also read Groucho
Marx's letters now and then, and Steinbeck (especially The Grapes
of Wrath), Hemingway. Among contemporaries, I find Ben Marcus's
work inspiring. Also recently re-reading Michael Herr, Julia Slavin,
Brian Evenson, Gary Lutz, D.F. Wallace.
MV: What's next? What are you working on now?
GS: I'm finishing up two things: a book-length illustrated piece
on, I guess, genocide, for kids (ha) and another book of stories.
I also just finished two screenplays - one for CivilWarLand in Bad
Decline and one for the story Sea Oak. Thanks for your interest,
and for the truly insightful questions. I enjoyed this process very
MV: Thank you, George. Everybody at GutCult is looking forward
to your new work..