Careful readers of this blog know that I revere George Saunders, both as a writer and as a moral thinker. I’ve halfway through his new In Persuasion Nation, and I frankly see no reason to change my assessment, except possibly to raise my esteem for him even higher. (“Chicago Christmas” and “Comm Comm” are two of the best stories published in English in this young century. Both are in this new collection.) So, while I’ve resisted linking to every new interview about him that I see, this one from Boldtype is too smart to resist. A taste:
BOLDTYPE: I know you get this question all the time, but how did your background as an engineer play into your development as a writer?
SAUNDERS: It helped in a couple ways. One was that it got me into situations that a writer wouldn’t normally find himself in. I worked for an oil company in the ‘80s. I worked for environmental engineering companies that were basically trying to get corporate clients out of trouble. We went to Air Force bases and compiled lists of all the pollution and mistakes they had made. I worked for a slaughterhouse. Also on a crew in Sumatra that was basically doing earth-raping–tearing up jungle where people had never set foot before. Well, we weren’t, but the parent company we were working for was taking all the oil money and exporting it to the central government in Jakarta. I wasn’t a writer at that time, so I went into these worlds with no irony and no distrust. For whatever reason, I was working a series of jobs that a kind of idealized liberal sensibility would see as symbolic of oppressive, late-stage capitalist decadence. But then, on the inside, you see that the people doing that are just people really trying to take care of their kids, and they aren’t unaware of what they’re doing. They make elaborate rationales for being there. Nobody wakes up and says, “time to destroy!” They usually wake up and say “I’m going to do really well today!” It made me feel that the world is really complicated, that good and evil are really complicated. So that technical background as an engineer got me into some places you don’t normally go. When I was there, I was just part of the scene.
There’s a lot more. Go read it. Now if we can just Saunders and Robert Birnbaum in a room together…