More Mercy, Fewer Victory Dances: Chatting With George Saunders

When George Saunders daughters were young, he would tell them stories at night with a little girl (often slightly misunderstood) as the heroine, trying to work her way through things. Sometimes, she had a dopey younger brother who took credit for what his sister did. One of those stories had a little more shape, and Saunders, the author of Tenth of December, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and Pastoralia, decided to write it down.

The story became The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, about a girl, Capable, who lives in Frip, where the three families in town make their living selling goat’s milk. Gappers, bright orange with lots of eyes, attach themselves to the goats, shrieking with joy and inhibiting their milk production. That means Capable and her neighbors have to regularly brush the gappers off the goats. In the story, the gappers suddenly abandon the neighbors and only go to Capable’s yard, which her neighbors take as a sign of their own superior virtue. Capable asks them for help, doesn’t get it, and in the end deals with the problem in a way fitting her name — and without what Saunders calls “a victory dance in the end zone.”

“Nobody gets their comeuppance,” he said on the phone from Syracuse where he teaches creative writing. “At the end, she could lock the door and say, ‘I win, and fuck you guys,’ but it’s more interesting if she reaches out to them. And I think it’s better storytelling if it keeps opening outwards.”

When looking for an illustrator, Lane Smith, of The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! and The Stinky Cheese Man, was at the top of Saunders’ list.

Saunders says Smith, who did work on this book, has an encyclopedic knowledge of illustration, and Saunders describes Smith’s work as having a classical core — with a little bit of sass.

“I also thought of him as a minimalist,” Saunders said. “He does a lot with suggestion and omission, which I like to try to do.”

The quality of being capable is something he and his wife wanted his daughters to have, Saunders said, so they would be comfortable in any situation and could figure out what they needed to do. And that’s how they turned out, he says.

“They’re really kind,” he said. “They don’t mind taking a hit now and then, and they have a great sense of humor, and they’re patient.”

Saunders calls this pretty good padding to deal with life. And he has a deep belief that literature can be part of the padding as well.

“The world is sometimes bigger than we can manage and it crushes us,” he said. “With kids, you don’t have to tell them that yet. You can let them know things can go well and that they have the resources to make things go better.”

In the story, Capable’s father has been so shaken by the death of his wife earlier in the year, that he doesn’t want change of any kind and Capable has to make a special white dye for all his food since the last thing her mother cooked was rice. Saunders found a father who wants things to stay the same after a huge loss more interesting than having an awful or absent parent. He is now working with MGM on an adaptation of the book, and they won’t have a real villain in the movie either.

“There’s not a screaming, frothing-at-the-mouth bad guy,” he said. “We want to do something a little gentler and true to the spirit of the book.”

His daughters would roll their eyes at a story beginning with a handsome prince, Saunders says. They preferred the adults to be a little neurotic – more like life.

“Self absorption is always funny,” Saunders said. “The more truthful you are about human fallibility, the more the listener can relate. I think foibles are so interesting. Everyone is the hero of their own story.”

George Saunders, Monday, Dec 14, 4:00 p.m., at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California. $40 ticket includes a copy of The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. 415-292-1233

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