Saunders on meaning


Got a rejection yesterday from Booth, a magazine I really like.  Discovered that Saunders was a writer-in-residence there a few years ago, and I read through an interview with one of Booth’s editors.

This is the section that stood out for me:

If I had an idea that was spontaneous like that, immediately some conceptual part of me said, “Oh, that’s good. What does it mean? Why does it matter?” To me, that was a death sentence. Whenever I would think that, the story would always go off into a ditch, the ditch of being too predictable, the ditch of being preachy. So what I learned to do is to was just say, “OK, look. If you can write one paragraph that doesn’t suck and that has a little bit of ambient energy, and then just refine it – poke around at it, make it a little better – eventually it will sprout a little tendril, usually a very natural one: curiosity.”

It’s wonderful because most people who review Saunders’ work talk a lot about how his work is really “about” something.  For example “Escape from Spiderhead” from Tenth of December is supposed to be about inhumane laboratory conditions.  But I get the impression that Saunders just started writing this weird story about drugs that can simulate or enhance any psychological condition, and he ran with it.

Sometimes when I’m in the middle of the story I catch myself thinking that: well, what the hell is it about?  Do I need to slip some kind of deep meaning in here to make it seem important?  Or I start to suspect that the story really is deep and I just need to coax that out.  When really I just like the way one character speaks one line of dialogue, and I build a story around it.

My story “Gospel of Autumn King Gourd” is like that.  It’s relentlessly weird, and I don’t know that it’s really about anything other than these fairly monstrous people engaged in a holy war.  Looking back on it, I keep thinking it’s too “light” — as in trivial — and maybe it is.  But it surprised me as I was writing it, and that has to be the goal.   (Somehow it was also selected to the short list for PRISM International’s Short Fiction Contest.  Nice to know that a few people responded to it, anyway.)

About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

Add Comment

Leave a Reply

By Tom Howard


Get in touch

Feel free to follow me to get a follow back, and to say hello.

Follow me on Twitter

%d bloggers like this: