I meet the American short-story writer George Saunders in Hazlitt's Hotel in Soho, just around the corner from the offices his UK publisher. He's a genuinely cult writer with a word-of-mouth following, but this week he's been introducing new readers to his unique world, in which, among other things, a polar bear stuck in a parallel universe gets to have a Joycean epiphany, and characters say things like: "Listen to me carefully, Brad. Go up on to the roof, install the roof platform, duct-tape the Aids baby to the roof platform, then come directly down, borrow your butter, and go home."
We're sharing coffee and biscuits and talking about other writers he admires, and how he came to writing himself. He's not sure whether to describe himself as "working class" but he has worked as an engineer and a technical writer and didn't really discover contemporary writing until he read Stuart Dybek and realised that you could read something "in your world with people speaking with the same diction". After that he read Raymond Carver, probably his most direct literary ancestor.
"I was kind of a Hemingway imitator, and a Carver imitator, and you can only do that so well. Then there was a moment when I thought, 'Is it possible that the world doesn't give a shit whether or not I'm a writer?' I was in this corporate job, running a photocopier in a compound in Rochester, New York, where the windows didn't open. Somehow that was a big turning point for me, because I was still thinking in those Carveresque rhythms. But for me, the physical world was absent. There was nothing. There were just cubicles. Somehow that made my prose change in some way. And that's what working class life is now: you're the guy running the photocopier, or you're the guy aspiring to run the photocopier. Plus I realised that you just can't write Hemingway set in a theme park.'
One of the ways Saunders so perfectly captures our theme park, cable-TV world is in his use of spare, naturalistic prose, where awkward positioning of the word "which" and aberrant question marks exactly realise the rhythms of contemporary American speech. He hates adjectives, adverbs and "literary, flowery writing" and searches for truth on the level of the sentence. But Saunders's truths are often not what you immediately think they are. In one story, "In Persuasion Nation", fall-guys from commercials (the man who gets pulped by a bag of Doritos because he doesn't love them enough; the polar bear who gets an axe in his head for trying to steal Cheetos from an Eskimo family), condemned to spend their lives repeating the same brutal scenes, finally have an awakening. Poignantly, the polar bear realises he's part of an economy.
"A lot of people hate it. In the States I'm getting hammered for that one."
I tell him it's probably my favourite in the new collection.
"At some point I thought, 'This is a story making fun of marketing.' Then I thought, 'Is that really sufficient? No. Who can not make fun of marketing?' So I just kept working with it, and in the end it wasn't really about marketing. It was about this American feeling now, which is, "We're caught in something, politically, that is bigger than us and doesn't really care." But that thing with the polar bear being like a fish realising he's in water, that was for me the profound thing the story was trying to do. That's how stories work. At some point that fish has to rise, or you're kind of screwed."
The fish that realises it is in water is often a symbol of enlightenment in Buddhism, so I decide it might not be too crazy to suggest a Zen reading of "In Persuasion Nation". I'm not sure how this will go down, but Saunders is nodding and agreeing.
"My wife and I are in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and I think that story, and a lot of what I do, is saying that hope is real. There is a solution. But you have to really, really, watch your mind; you have to watch the situation you're in. I felt like I was a Buddhist before I knew it, because writing... Well, what else is it? You put something down on Thursday, and if you get attached to the idea of how good it was on Thursday, then on Friday you're screwed. But if you let it be a new story, then you can see what it needs and you can go on and on."
Many of Saunders's stories are profound in a way not immediately suggested by the (usually bitterly funny) set-up. In the story "Winky", from his previous collection Pastoralia, the narrator attends a self-help seminar where he realises that his crazy sister is the person metaphorically "crapping in his oatmeal". But he later finds he is too much of a "loser" to tell her to move out. Meanwhile, the reader has a different realisation: that this isn't a bad thing, and that life is rather more complex than the self-help industry suggests. But Saunders believes you shouldn't get attached to theme either, and that themes, like everything else in a story, come from the hard work of revising at sentence level.
"Dybek says that the writer has to listen to the story, because the story's trying to tell you what it wants to do. What we do with a lot of conceptual thought, is say, 'No, you shut up and listen to me; I'll tell you. You're my story about patriarchy. Shut the hell up.' And you get this forced story."
"Bohemians", which took Saunders eight years to write, ends with a scene where one of the characters, Raccoon, "glued together three balsa-wood planes and placed on this boat a turd from her dog Svengooli, and, as Svengooli's turd went over a little waterfall and disappeared into the quarry, we cheered." I tell Saunders that I've been somehow haunted by Svengooli's turd. It's such a great end to this story. But it turns out that this scene had been stuck in the "Cut file" until its place in the story became obvious.
After talking about scene construction (Saunders says: 'I'm kind of a freak about functionality. I want things to be efficient and I want to send you out of each scene with a little slap on the ass"), we agree that cutting is the most pleasurable part of writing. Could it be that you get more truth with less language? Perhaps. After all, look how much corporations love their complicated mission statements. Saunders teaches at Syracuse university, and often gets students to cut a 500-word piece down to 200 words. Each time they cut they realise that the piece is getting better. Then he sends them off to do the same thing on one of their own stories. "The next day about a third of the kids come in, and they're like, 'Holy shit, I'm a good writer!' Revision is actually writing."
'The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil' is published by Bloomsbury (£10.99) To buy a copy for £9.99 (free p&p), contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897Reuse content