‘It forces me to lose control’: George Saunders on writing ‘Liberation Day’

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Sarah Sweeney

George Saunders, author of “Lincoln in the Bardo,” poses for photographers after winning the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2017 in London, Britain, October 17, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Mary Turner.

George Saunders is a master of the short story. His work has been likened to that of Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain. He’s known for his smart, satirical takes on American society — employed with humor and empathy. He won a Booker Prize for his novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo.” His last short story collection, “Tenth of December,” was a finalist for the National Book Award. Well, nearly a decade after publishing that last collection, Saunders is out with a new one called “Liberation Day.”

Many of the stories in Saunders’ new book take place in a dystopian future, which he describes as the perfect setting to explore new ideas.

“It forces me to lose control in a certain way. It destabilizes the whole platform. So suddenly, you're in this weird theme park, and you're just desperately paddling to keep the reader with you. And somehow that takes the controlling mind off the table a little bit, and it makes more uncertainty and fun,” Saunders tells KCRW.  

His short story titled “Ghoul” takes place in an underground theme park where attendees can’t escape. It follows a man named Brian, who performs as a ghoul without much of a crowd. Saunders says while he started writing the piece without much of an idea, its meaning soon made itself clear. 

“There was a point about three-quarters of the way through where I'm like, … ‘Is there any way in which I, in my mind and body, feel trapped? And that sometimes everything I do is futile? Yeah, especially lately I feel that way.’ So as I'm writing even a really crazy story like this, I keep thinking, ‘Would my perfect reader be feeling any resonance with her life?’ … I don't want to pin it down or force a meaning on her, but I want us to be in it together, feeling that this isn’t irrelevant to the real core issues of our life.” 

Many of the stories in Saunders’ new book take place in a dystopian future, which he describes as the perfect setting to explore new ideas. Courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Another story, “Love Letter,” follows a grandfather and his regrets over not doing enough to confront facism in America. Saunders says inspiration for the story is based on his own frustrations about facism. 

“I did it because I felt like other people must be feeling it. And then I would be doing something that people would like. Partly, you do it for yourself, but it's like, maybe I can get in there, offer comfort, but also stir up the pot a little bit,” he explains. “There's a little bit of benevolence, maybe I could reach out and reassure somebody somewhere. But at this point, it's just a feeling. Like if something feels urgent, then I just try it.”

In “A Thing At Work,” two women are at odds due to status and education in an office breakroom. Saunders says it’s inspired by his time working for an engineering company where he noticed the power structures in the organization.

“In the story, there's a woman who's a word processor. … She's not a college graduate. She’s just come out of jail. She's working there. And over many years of writing it, it became a meditation on how power preserves itself. Those kind of quiet winks [where] power [goes], ‘Let's not talk about that right now. Let's take out the weakest in the herd.’ It also became a nice years-long experiment in my own empathy, like, ‘Who am I rooting for here? Can I write the story so that I'm actually rooting for everybody?’”

Saunders will be at an event hosted by Skylight Books on November 3 at the Colburn School in downtown LA.