Food & Culture

George Saunders: how I eat

The Booker Prize-winning author on fast-food chicken, writing rituals and his affinity with maîtres d’.

By Lee Tran Lam
George Saunders
As a teen, you helped your father at his Chicken Unlimited restaurant in Chicago.
I was the delivery boy, and drove around in this tricked-out Chevy van, with a heating oven in the back. The best part of this was the people I got to meet. Our restaurant served as a gathering place for lonely people who had nowhere else to go: an old man dying of cancer, a manic woman who used to come over and chain-smoke and chain-drink Pepsis while talking to herself, who later slashed her wrists and jumped into the Chicago River and was saved, against her will, by a guy passing by. So – great training for a writer in the mad variety of life, but also in the practice of having tender feelings for people who, at first, you might dismiss.
Did the job kill your appetite for chicken?
I still like it. But I sometimes think back with horror on the sheer number of calories I ate back then. I was, while working at the restaurant, also trying to be a bodybuilder and was very skinny, so my mission became, "Bulk up." Or, "Bulk up, while working at a fast-food restaurant where everything, including the soft drinks, gets deep-fried." It was not hard.
You once worked as a field geophysicist in Indonesia. Did you enjoy the local food?
The meal I most remember was this: I'd get sent into the field, deep into the Sumatran jungle, into places where people literally had never been before we barged in there with our exploration equipment. We'd send in a "rintis" crew, who would cut these very narrow paths into the woods. Our guys would catch trout from these pristine streams, spice them with local spices, and bury them in a firepit for the day. I have never, before or since, tasted anything that wonderful. It was like eating beautifully flavoured air.
You once compared being an author to being a maître d' at a restaurant. Why?
Well, as a writer you have a chance – a responsibility – to make a beautiful experience for your reader by any means necessary. If you need to be voicey and crazy – do that. If you need to recede and vanish (or curate extant pieces of writing, as I did in Lincoln in the Bardo), then do that. You are in a service role that allows for infinite creativity.
What was it like winning The Man Booker Prize in 2017 for Lincoln in the Bardo?
The Booker Prize was really surprising. I had gathered that it was not going to be the year for an American to win, so went to the party with low expectations. But I've found that the big challenge of a creative life – which will sometimes result in recognition – is to get over the buzz of having been recognised as quickly as possible. Or to extract the positive parts – the part that props up my often-flagging self-confidence and thereby allows me to try bigger things. To reject the negative parts of it; the part that tells me to relax, because I've already made it, or (most harmful of all) makes me trust too readily in my previous approach which, to make real art, has to be overthrown continually.
Your story, "Two-Minute Note to the Future", was printed on paper bags by fast-food chain Chipotle. How did that feel?
It got more response than anything else I'd published – for example, from old friends who had no idea I was a writer. So that was nice. For my next project, I am going to publish a story literally on a series of McDonald's hamburger buns.
In your recent book, Fox 8, a fox reasons that chickens are asking to be eaten, because they're not very good at running away. Did working on this remind you of your Chicken Unlimited days?
I actually had a flashback to my days on an oil crew in Texas, when I saw two of my fellow workers kill a wounded vulture – for fun. So much of the "violence" we see on TV and so on is not really violence; it is highly stylised and a choreographed dance, really. In the story, it really hurts. I was reminded of this recently when John Cameron Mitchell read Fox 8 to an audience in New York City. It was very wonderful and uncomfortable.
Is consuming caffeine one of your writing rituals?
I am a coffee man, yes. That's about my only habit. I heard the lovely writer Lynda Barry talk about patterns of interruption that artists enact. I've since noticed that, when I get on a good run in a story, I will only (lapsed Catholic that I am) let myself go so far. Then I go upstairs and get a pretzel rod or graham cracker and, just by doing that, my elation will die back down enough for me to go back to work.
You've set several stories in unusual restaurants. What's the most unconventional place you've had a meal?
I did a story for GQ a few years ago where I lived incognito in a homeless camp for about a week. Churches would come and pass out food for the people in the camp. At one of these meals, I had gotten so tired of pretending to be a homeless guy, I confessed to one of the church mums that I was a writer working for GQ. She looked at me sceptically (part of my approach was not to bathe or change clothes that whole time) and then sympathetically. "No, seriously," I said. She began to edge away. I had that moment of really feeling what it was like to be down and out: I was auto-assumed to be crazy and dangerous, and the more I tried to explain myself, the crazier and more dangerous I appeared. And the only way to put her at peace was to take my dry hamburger on my plastic plate and vanish back into the crowd.
George Saunders appears at Sydney Writers Festival on 2 May, His latest book, Fox 8 (Bloomsbury, $21.99, hbk), is out now.
  • undefined: Lee Tran Lam