The author of Pastoralia and Tenth of December on American fame, the importance of living a curious life, and Arthur Miller’s Timebends .
A series of conversations with writers about a book they love. In this installment, I’m talking with George Saunders about Timebends by Arthur Miller.
George Saunders is the author of several books, including the story collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, and In Persuasion Nation. January 7th marks the release of the paperback of his most recent book, Tenth of December, which was included on nearly every “Best Books of 2013 List,” including ours. He has received fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Guggenheim Foundation, and a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, in 2006. This year, he was included in Time’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. He teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Syracuse University.
Via Basso Cannarsa
Timebends by Arthur Miller
Via Colin Winnette
Colin Winette: What were the exact circumstances that led to your picking up Timebends for the first time?
George Saunders: I was flying home from Pittsburgh and had finished all the books I’d brought with me and came across it in the airport bookstore. I've always loved his plays – our family had a beautiful experience seeing Death of a Salesman last year in NY, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy – and I remembered a great little memoir piece Miller had in Harper's years ago that had to do with his youth in New York and the idea that, when talking with a group of friends, you had to have what he called “a line to walk on.” That is, you had to say something funny enough before you left to shut everybody down. What I loved about that piece was that it offered an insight into what life was like in New York in the late 1940s that felt somehow new – I hadn't seen that New York in any book or movie before. So I had a feeling the book would be worth my time. I think Miller is one of the great American artists of the last century and I was just really interested to see what the world looked like to him.
CW: Before we dig in, could you offer a few lines of encouragement for potential readers who aren't very familiar with Miller, or aren't artists/writers themselves?
GS: I think this book is a great mini-seminar in the 20th Century – its politics and art and culture. It gives the reader a sort of one-person view of what, say, “the Depression” actually felt like and looked like on the ground; that is, the people living through “the Depression” didn't know that's what it was. Likewise the McCarthy period. And it is very entertaining – funny and novelistic and full of great portraits of famous people. And even a little gossipy at times. That is actually one of its subtexts – this idea that American art sinks or swims on how well it reaches out to a larger audience. Miller seems to see this as both a blessing and a form of tyranny – but for him, this egalitarian aspect of American art was the source of its vitality.
CW: What drew you into this book, initially? What kept you reading, and what inspired the recommendation today?
GS: At first I was just loving the descriptions of his childhood and being reminded of the fact that the only thing that will evoke the world as we actually experience it is great sentences – the difference between a boring, banal account of childhood and one that feels properly rich and mysterious (i.e., like one's own actual childhood), is the phrase-by-phrase quality of the prose. Perceptions truthfully remembered make great sentences and great sentences provide the way for that truthful remembering to happen – something like that. I guess I'm just saying it was a pleasure to read such intelligent writing.
But also – lately I find myself interested in anything historical that can open up my mind afresh and get me really seeing the past, with the purpose of adding that data to my evolving moral-ethical view of the world. (We only live in one time but can read in many, etc., etc.) To have a witness as intelligent and articulate as Miler is almost (almost!) like having been there oneself. So here, wow, the stories and details – New York before the war, all his crazy relatives and their various ends; stories about Odets, Kazan, et al, Miller's deep periods of artistic immersion, life with Monroe, trips to Russia, walking around with Frank Lloyd Wright (and finding him unlikeable), the moral-spiritual breakdown of Untermeyer, the way Lee J. Cobb first “got” Willy Loman, and on and on – I just came away thinking, “Jeez, what a life. Good for you, Arthur Miller. We should all live so fully.”
I also found myself really excited by Miller's basic assumptions about art: it's important, it is supposed to change us, it's not supposed to be trivial or merely clever, it's one human being trying to urgently communicate with another. But it was also exciting to see his uncertainty around this stance – the way he couldn't always execute, and sometimes doubted those ideas, and found himself fighting against the prevailing spirit of the time – like in the 1960s, when everything felt, to him, ironic and faux-cynical. I found myself inspired by the way he went through his life, always holding out a high vision of what art is supposed to do – he strikes me as having been a real fighter.