George Saunders is the author of four collections of short stories—Civilwarland in Bad Decline (1997), Pastoralia (2001), In Persuasion Nation (2007), and Tenth of December (2014)—as well as a book of essays, The Brain-Dead Megaphone (2007), and an award-winning children’s book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip (2005). Civilwarland in Bad Decline was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and Tenth of December was a finalist for the National Book Award. His awards include a MacArthur Genius Grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Born in Amarillo, Texas, Saunders grew up in Chicago; he received a degree from the Colorado School of Mines and worked as a geophysicist before completing an MFA at Syracuse University in 1988, where he is now professor of English and teaches in the creative writing program. He has regularly published articles and stories in the New Yorker, GQ, and Harper’s Magazine, and has appeared in anthologies such as the Best American Short Stories, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and Best American Travel Writing. His first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, will be published by Random House in January 2017. He was interviewed by W. Brett Wiley.
Image: In our initial correspondence, when I asked about your adherence to Christian and Buddhist teachings, you wrote, “I don’t see them separately at all, or just a little.” Would you be willing to elaborate?
George Saunders: I was raised in parochial schools, in Chicago, no less. In the 1960s, no less. I think I’ve always had a need, because of that intense period, for mystery and metaphor and beauty—really because of the power of the Catholic Mass. Catholicism was central to my way of thinking and being in the world—a moral system and an aesthetic system. Then seventh grade happened, and my connection to the faith kind of dwindled. But I think that early-generated need is constant. Once a person has a glimpse of mystery, he’s always going to be seeking that. Many years later we had our kids, and we started to attend an Episcopal church, and I felt that need being both reawakened and addressed there.
So, no, I don’t see Christianity and Buddhism as separate; in fact, for me, one picked up where the other left off. My wife and I had started to feel that Christianity did a lot of urging one to be good but didn’t tell one much about how to accomplish that—how to change, how to convert one’s way of thinking and being in the world. And then we encountered Tibetan Buddhism and found a tradition that offered real practices that a person could do every day, and almost immediately I could feel myself changing. I actually felt parts of my mind reengage—parts that had been dormant since I left the Catholic Church circa 1972.
Image: Things lined up in your mind?
GS: Things didn’t necessarily line up, but it felt like the practices were addressing exactly the things that were concerning me at that time: “How can I become more patient? How can I disrupt these decades-long habits I seem to have acquired? Is it possible to increase one’s ability to love? How can I see situations more clearly?” The other exciting thing was that, as I did more meditation, I realized I’d been doing it all along, while writing. And, in fact, I’d been doing a kind of meditation during all those blissful years as a kid sitting in church. I had thought my mind was just drifting, but I was meditating.
Another similarity, and something I really responded to, is that Buddhism and Catholicism are both very rich in metaphor and symbol and ceremony: incense, bells, chant, intense color patterning in vestments. They both use symbolic deities and share the notion that there are realms of knowing that are not conceptual or literal and are only accessible experientially, and may not be subject to reduction. (And, of course, they share this belief with the arts.)
Also, from the time I was a little kid, I’ve had a probably overactive moral or ethical sense, an awareness of right and wrong—and I think that led me to find a home first in Catholicism, then in fiction, and then in Buddhism. I had a sense that we ought to be urgently seeking, because we are in some trouble down here: life is rough and death is coming.
I feel that our purpose here on earth is to move from a position of strong belief in self (strong ego, anxiety, fear, a sense of permanence) to a Christ- or Buddha-like position of unconditional love and erasure of self and acceptance of the conditionality of all things. Personally, I am a long way from that. My sense of self seems to get stronger every year, even as I get less attractive and more absent-minded.
One doesn’t get rid of the self easily. The more practice I’ve done, the more amazed I’ve become at how stubborn and clever the self is. But along the way, I think we might be afforded little sneak previews, glimpses of something vast and deep and eternal in us. To me, religious and artistic practices are about what Buddhists call “accumulating merit.” You do certain things as a way of taking baby steps towards that desired position of selflessness. The goal is to see all positive activities as part of the same greater positive activity: When you are meditating, praying, or writing, you are trying to get some clarity, to move yourself, even incrementally, in the right direction.
Right after I finished a story called “The Falls,” I read an article about a phenomenon where a person will see somebody in distress and suddenly, instinctively, rush off to save them, and in that process, as they describe it later, their self momentarily disappears. I remember reading the testimony of a guy who leapt into the Potomac back in the 1980s, when a plane had crashed there, and he mentioned this: there was suddenly no distinction between himself and the drowning person. That’s a powerful notion, that we are capable of that sort of feeling.
Our habitual way of thinking about those moments is that they are either miraculous or freaky, i.e. not real. But they occur in every culture. Maybe we are like eggs, with our shells made of habit and ego, but every now and then little cracks appear and some light comes in and we get a glimpse of how things actually are.
Most moments, we are trapped within our usual way of thinking (probably for good, Darwinian reasons). But it would be very strange if what we could feel at any given moment was exactly equal to what the universe actually is. Every now and then we get a brief glimpse of our own limitedness—which is, of course, also a glimpse of our limitlessness.
There’s a wonderful book by Patricia Pearson, Opening Heaven’s Door, in which she describes how, when her father was dying, he came to her sister in a dream on the very night he died and said, by way of a long and beautiful and future-revealing dream, “It’s all okay.” He had died unexpectedly, and this sister had the dream not yet knowing he’d passed away. Pearson, who is a journalist, got curious. She started interviewing hospice nurses and other people who’d had these sorts of experiences, and in the end something like half the people she interviewed reported having had communication from the dead or dying. We tend to treat these things as kooky, but speaking scientifically, if fifty percent of a data pool reports something, we ought to consider that. Pearson asks whether the Enlightenment pendulum has swung too far to the logical side, and whether now we are actually being anti-scientific by ignoring this sort of data.
I find all of this fascinating and hopeful—indicating, as it does, that we are not just these bodies and that the truth, whatever it is, is not limited to what we can perceive and prove.
Of course, you have to be careful, or you may find yourself in some small cult that believes penguins are actually aliens.
Image: You’ve said of your move toward Buddhism, “It wasn’t a rejection and then an adoption.” Rather, you’re putting these two things together, borrowing from each and allowing them to bounce off of one another. Do you think of your experience with religion in that way, as syncretic?
GS: First, it’s important to note that my initial experiences with Catholicism and Buddhism were separated by many years. But here’s what Catholicism, Buddhism, and writing have in common for me: when I was young, though I couldn’t ever articulate it, I was moved by the idea of Jesus as this incredibly present, accepting being who was also able to roll with things. He would say, “So, you’re a prostitute? Cool, no problem, I accept you.” I’ve always felt that if you had that kind of unconditional love for everyone and everything, you would be so powerful. That model of personhood was in my mind: with Jesus everything was workable because everything was loved.
In writing, it’s the same. It finally came to seem, after years of writing, that there’s never really an unworkable problem in prose, if we abide. If there is an issue, the prose itself can rise up to address it. That’s what storytelling is. I was writing a story called “The Barber’s Unhappiness,” which at one point just locked right up. I kept writing the same scene over and over, although set in different places. And it finally occurred to me that my feelings toward that character (who was sort of a bad, sexist dope) were static. I’d already decided what he was. The story didn’t like that and, like a dog on a leash, refused to be pulled along. So I started looking closer at the existing prose, asking myself if I could find any place to humanize the guy. And, seeing it that way, I found a few clunky places, where the prose was a little awkward and unformed, and by coming back to these, found out a few new things about him, things that made it possible to feel for him. The story opened up again, and I finished it. This is a very strange thing in writing—when the prose goes bad or vague or tepid, the story is concealing a treasure, sort of saying, “Dig here!”
So the stance is one of abiding with the text, of having faith in its essential goodness. The text isn’t rotten; you just haven’t looked deep enough yet.
In Buddhism I found the same notion. Meditation is really just the mind watching the mind, accepting whatever is found there, generously, curiously. Not judging, just looking.
In all three activities, I also loved the urgency—the sense that we are engaged in a serious endeavor and mustn’t spend our time with our eyes averted from what is real: we are temporary. We love, but the objects of our love are also temporary. We can’t seem to fully live into our love, and that is frustrating and sometimes tragic. Now, what can we do about it?
One thing I enjoyed about my early experiences in Catholicism: those nuns and priests were not fucking around. They had a sense that all of this mattered, very much, and they would be happy, even obligated, to kick your ass to help you see that too. Years later, I saw a priest at the funeral of a young person, an unexpected death, and he was walking around saying something like, “Is this surprising to you people? Why is this surprising?” It was like a lightning bolt, that directness.
Image: You’ve described an intensely ecstatic experience you had at twelve or thirteen, and how you longed for it to continue, though you knew it had to end. How does that fit alongside the regret you describe in “Congratulations, by the Way,” the now famous talk on kindness you gave to Syracuse graduates in 2013?
GS: I was in Friday-night Mass and had this feeling of what I’d describe as loving lineage—I felt part of a long line of Catholic practitioners (“Hi, Peter! Hi, Paul!”) and felt a kind of ecstatic uplift at that brotherhood. And I felt it would be so beautiful if this feeling could be sustained. But alas.
I think those ecstatic experiences are favors God does you, in order to say, “You’re not ready for this yet. You can’t do it, but I’m not kidding—this state is real and valid.” I still remember the clarity and power of those feelings. I felt this great and overwhelming affection for everything and everybody. But then I could feel it waning over the course of the regular-old Friday evening that followed. It was like a drug buzz: you’re feeling this way because it’s in your veins, but metabolically it can’t stay there.
I was an earnest little kid. A little bit neurotic, but also very earnest. I remember going to first confession, which to me meant I was going to be pure for the first time in my life. And I remember feeling that purity, loving it, and then, walking out, knowing that my mind would think something perverse or I’d do something bad. And as soon as you think, “I might think something bad,” your mind supplies some bad thing, and there you are, sullied again. When I look back, it seems sweet, how hard I tried to be good. At the time, I thought it was my fault that those feelings of purity and ecstasy went away. But I can also remember thinking, “You are the guy that had that experience and is now losing it and is worried about it, but you’re okay. You’re still all right. If it’s real, it will come back.”
I remember, at the end of the service, we’d always sing, “The Mass has ended. All go in peace. We must diminish and Christ increase.” I really felt that happen to me, that once.
Image: Did you ever read the Catholic mystics?
GS: Years later. It was really too bad that wasn’t part of my experience growing up. Although it did seem part of it organically. That is, some of that mystical experience came through the Mass—through its structure and so on. But I don’t think we were overtly taught those things. We didn’t read Saint Teresa or Merton or anybody like that, that I can recall.
Anyway, once you’ve had that experience as a young person, it’s real to you forevermore. It’s not trivial. It’s not laughable. And you have a hunger for it thereafter. You could say, “Oh, I was just a crazy little hallucinator,” but you know in your heart that isn’t true. To me, that’s one of the beautiful things about that tradition. At that time, it was not gentle, it was not ambiguous, and it was not touchy-feely—it was radical. Of course the radicalness, the extremity, produced a lot of bad side-effects—but it also produced things that were profound.
For a couple of years when I was quite young, the Mass was still done in Latin, and my mom tells me I could say it from memory, beginning to end. Artistic things were going on there. Every day the altar would be decorated differently, in different colors, for different holy days and so on, and I remember being really interested in that—in the care that was taken in the visual display. And there were things about the Mass itself that were powerful training for a would-be artist. The Mass is a beautiful, big metaphor, and one thing a kid could learn by going to Mass over and over was that meaning can be conveyed in various ways, including sublingually and subconceptually, through metaphor and repetition and what is not said. That’s great training for an artist—the idea that even if you can’t articulate a certain effect, it can still be happening. Once that notion gets into you, you’re hungry for it the rest of your life. I’m grateful for all those things: For the idea that you can be more than you think you are. For the idea of Christ blessing the unfortunate with his un-judging attention. That was powerful, and I’d say that was the beginning of political thinking for me.
As a kid I had this skin condition where I’d get cuts really easily, and I played football. My knees and ankles were always open wounds. We’d do the Stations of the Cross, and you’d have to kneel for a long time, and these sores would open up and start to ooze and sting. Very uncomfortable, very embarrassing. I remember talking with a nun about this problem, and her advice was, “Offer it up to the Lord.” At the time I thought it was a bunch of bull, but I did it, and afterward I found I had discovered a way to sort of play through pain, so to speak. I remember thinking, “This hurts, yes…but what is hurt? Where is it located?” Which, in hindsight, I can see was a form of meditative experience. So I think that ungentle style of Catholicism led me to certain meditative insights I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
This was helpful in later periods when a certain result wasn’t coming to me as quickly as I would have liked, for example, in engineering school, or writing my first book. Immersed in what is starting to feel like a negative experience, you can slightly turn the mind and say, “This experience of failure is also part of this thing I’m trying to do.” Rigor, and even harshness, are one way of forcing a person to explore the outer boundaries of who he is.
Image: It is not unusual for characters in your stories to pray. The narrators of “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz” and “My Flamboyant Grandson” pray, as well as Don Eber in “Tenth of December,” and there are more. What role does prayer play in your stories or for your characters?
GS: Let me start with a disclaimer: there can be years separating the composition of these stories, and when I write them, I’m just in the story trying to figure it out, just doing what I have to do. So the honest answer would be that I never really think about the role of prayer in my stories. So this is going to be a constructed answer.
But, when are you more honest than when you are praying? Narratively, prayer is handy, in the same way a Greek chorus is handy, because it lets you have a character speak directly to the camera. It’s a way to let a character say, essentially: “Here’s my truth, as well as I can tell it.”
Image: Prayer rather than soliloquy.
GS: Yes. Or prayer as soliloquy. Because, really, what’s the difference? A soliloquy is just some very honest, eloquent talking. So is prayer, but the honesty and eloquence are for God’s benefit.
Often when I do something strange in a story it’s just an attempt to find a natural-seeming way of doing something theatrical. So, for example, when I have a ghost appear, that’s a way of objectifying something that’s actually rhetorical. We need a certain point of view represented. For example, in “The Wavemaker Falters,” this guy has accidentally killed a kid, and I needed some way to make that tragedy more palpable. So I let the dead kid show up and earnestly kvetch about all he was missing out on.
Image: But for a reader, the presence of ghosts and prayer and so on seems to suggest that life is more than just what is evident in the material realm. Is this something you are thinking about when you’re writing?
GS: Well, as I mentioned, my sense is that we live in an incredibly material time. We like stuff, yes, but we are also inclined to think that whatever is, is all there is. Whatever we feel is sufficient. Whatever we habitually think is right. That’s a weird contemporary trait, that we could be so arrogant as to think that it just so happens that in this generation we are fully equipped to know all that there is, and that we can know it logically and via the senses, period. And this inclination leads us to be very rational and data-reliant and pragmatic and mystery-denying—and yet mystery is real. We have no satisfactory answers for any of the biggest questions.
For me, spirituality is the more intelligent part of me asking, “What are the odds that you, a little created cellular creature, just happen to be ideally suited to understand all of this?” Smarter generations have known that we are just sensing little bits of whatever the ultimate reality is. They treasured those little bits, and they didn’t overanalyze them or discount them. The spiritual life acknowledges that those little glimpses are real. I can’t get back to them all the time, but I can at least not forget that they exist. That would basically be my definition of the sacred: those little traces of that greater knowledge that extend beyond our everyday ability to grasp it—and then the spiritual life is just that set of rituals or practices that serve to remind us of the reality of those glimpses.
Any moment in which you say to yourself, “All right, stop bullshitting, please,” or turn your mind to your actual fears, or are shaken out of your usual position of clinging to certain things for comfort (your success, your position, your unerring goodness)—that is a moment of prayer. Prayer is truth, or is steering oneself toward truth. Prayer is briefly getting free of our habit of denial, maybe. Sometimes I think it’s just taking a moment to ask, “Where am I?” and then answering that as honestly as you can. The convention is that we pray “to” God—but it reduces to the same thing, I think.
Image: So prayer reminds us of the truth, of something that is significant, even if you aren’t feeling it at present?
GS: Yes. Maybe, too, that’s what devotion is: a habit of trying to remind yourself that your current state of normalcy is not necessarily accurate. It’s as if you were a blind person who periodically saw. Each time, you’d ask yourself, “Was that a hallucination?” And the right answer would be: “No. Sight is real, but it just isn’t available to me right now.”
Image: You’ve talked about writing as a means of praying, as a sort of functional praying.
GS: I think real praying is something different. I don’t want to be the guy who says, “I don’t pray because I write.” How convenient! I do think there are some similarities between, say, the level of concentration in writing and meditating—but I don’t know. Better to do both.
Image: You have a number of characters who self-identify as Christian, such as Giff in “CommComm,” who belongs to the ChristLife Reënactors group (they stage events from the life of Jesus). Despite the comedy, your depiction of religious characters, church characters, is not sarcastic or critical. You don’t poke fun. As silly or misguided as they can be, they seem to be played straight. That’s not entirely atypical in this literary moment, but I’ve found your depictions somehow different.
GS: Part of it is that, having had a real experience, I’m less prone to throw it under the bus. But it also comes from the way stories evolve. In a first draft, the characters are poorly made; they’re crude, cartoonish puppets. As you revise, they get facial features, they start to move in particular ways. And always, you are trying to make the character be his or her most intense and interesting self. Through the revision process, that is.
I started “CommComm” mostly because of a guy, a nice guy, an old friend, who was giving me the spiel that the Iraq war was a just war, per Saint Augustine. Somehow the way he was doing it was disappointing to me, because he was overriding all those other Christian teachings about not killing. Sometimes as I start a story, I think, “I’ll correct that guy, or parody that viewpoint.” A good place to start, often.
But the beautiful thing about revision is that after a couple of months, the story starts getting tired of being so tightly controlled. It wants to mean what it wants to mean, and your original conception is cramping its style. So at that point you have a choice: cling to your original conception, and have a boring or unfinishable story, or give the story some rope. In this case, that meant saying, “Okay, I started out playing mock the fundamentalist, but the story seems to want me to take him somewhat seriously.” Then it gets interesting. You think, “Well, I’ve said he is a fundamentalist and that’s bad. And I demonstrated that. But what else is he? What if he not only believes, but will put his money where his mouth is?” In this case, Giff started to be sort of honorable, or at least considerable, in the purity of his belief, and in the lengths he would go to in order to live them out. He didn’t want to be a cardboard cutout—he wanted to be a person.
You go into writing a story with a certain static view, and then the fictive process destabilizes it. This tends to push the narrative toward empathy. I honestly don’t know why this should be the case, but I’ve seen it time and again.
This motion has more to do with technique than religion. There’s a certain stance toward religion that your cookie-cutter liberal agnostic or atheist will take, and I don’t really like that. It’s the same with politics. I don’t like it when people simply mock; that isn’t that interesting, and as a fictive technique it doesn’t stand up. But attention to technique—to truth, and velocity, and logic—will often force you out of your lazy, received beliefs and into something much fresher, which is sometimes even a little scary.
Image: Does some of that come out of your own desire to be kind?
GS: It’s the other way around, actually. Writing, I think, can train us to be kind, or kinder anyway—to look twice at the people we are making and cut them a little slack.
My natural disposition is to be willing to look a little closer at odd people—probably because I was raised on the South Side of Chicago. It was a funny, crazy, lovely world, and I had affection for so many different kinds of people. Dispositionally, I like fiction in which people are shown to be multivalent. I try to write those kind of stories.
The downside of this is—and I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately—you internalize this technique, or you have this aspiration to kindness. But is all this a function of my nice life? If you’re a tenured, well-paid professor at a nice university in America—in that world, kindness works great. But what about in Syria, or somewhere else where circumstances are different? What would kindness look like there? Not just smiling all the time, or holding the door open for people.
Image: In other interviews, you’ve mentioned Anton Chekov, Raymond Carver, and Ernest Hemingway as influences. Are writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne or Flannery O’Connor, who write violent and religious stories, also influences? There is a good deal of violence in your stories.
GS: I love what O’Connor says: “The writer can choose what he writes about but he cannot choose what he is able to make live.” That has been like a mantra for me, and it’s sometimes heartbreaking. I don’t particularly like writing violent, off-color stuff, but if I don’t, somehow the thing stays dead on the page. When you begin, you’re trying desperately not to have your story be dead on arrival, and you do this by any means necessary. Be a clown? Sure! Exaggerated violence? If that’s what it takes. Because without energy, fiction is and does nothing. It conveys no moral stance, no thematic content. As soon as somebody shuts the book, the story’s active period—the period during which it can actually cause something out in the world—is over.
Why would it be that, for me, darkness conveys power? I have a bunch of responses, because I don’t really know the answer. My main argument is that if you are going to write about kindness, you’d better do it in a test layout that isn’t de facto invalid. I think fiction is a scale model of reality. In reality, there’s good and there’s evil. In order for a story to be a valid experiment, good and evil have to be about the same size, like in the real world, and then they have to be allowed to fight. So that’s why (I sometimes say) I put violence in.
But do I have to put in quite so much? As a kid I watched a lot of television, and we always played violently. My guess is that it’s also something neurological, the way violence interests me and has animated my imagination.
Image: You often use two point-of-view characters within a story—as in “The Falls,” “Victory Lap,” and “Tenth of December,” among others. What does that offer you? Is there something intentional in that?
GS: “Necessity is the mother of invention” is amazingly true in fiction. When I wrote “The Falls,” I had just finished a first book, and I was so sick of first-person. I almost got to the point where I couldn’t do first-person without self-imitating. I had to write something else, anything else. My thought at the time was that third person can have a freer diction than I had allowed myself in that first book, and so I was drawn to that. I just had to get out of those tight first-person clothes. In that first section of “The Falls,” I had so much fun with the neurotic character. I knew somebody like that. I had that section around for a long time, and I took a break for about six months to read and try to catch up at work after writing that first book. And then I did another free-write that turned out to be the other guy. The trick was just to make two voices that were not the same. And then, I thought it would be cool to put those two guys in the same story.
Other times, a story wouldn’t move forward, or agree to be finished, in just one voice. So then you turn to a second narrator as a kind of Hail Mary move. “Can you, second narrator, help us out of this bind we find ourselves in?”
I think what I like about having two narrators is that it’s true to my way of seeing things. What’s happening in this room right now? A bunch of molecules are spinning around—that’s all. But also, that set of molecules over there—you—has a consciousness. And I’ve got a consciousness, too. There are two incredible monologues going on inside our heads, and, now and then—like if you were to try and steal my wallet, say—they intersect a little bit. That’s life. When I write those stories, I’m being truthful. And then the story can arise, very naturally, out of some small conflict or interaction between those created minds. It lets me put aside all of those messy, inhibiting thoughts about plot and theme and so on.
Image: While you aren’t writing science fiction per se, your stories include elements of that genre. When I’ve described your writing to friends, I’ve said, “He’s not writing stories set fifty years in the future; he’s writing about tomorrow.” There is something very familiar in your futuristic stories, even when they incorporate elements like virtual reality or, in a story like “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” when people are used as outdoor decorations. Do you see your stories as science fiction?
GS: My feeling is, the gateway to any story is energy. You have to have some way of getting things going—something that excites you, something that makes you confident enough and interested enough to generate prose. Sometimes you do something because it makes cool sentences. For me, introducing some sort of science fiction element is often just a way of getting myself interested. I work on the assumption that it doesn’t really matter what I start with—a genre conceit, a monologue, a realistic description of a mall. Whatever I have to say will get said if I only 1) start and 2) revise like crazy. If you take any system of symbols and obsess about it for three years, eventually some light will come off it. (Unless you know too well what light you want to come off it. If it’s over-managed, the light won’t come.)
The idea for the “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” came to me in a dream. And I thought, “Well, that’s edgy. I’m interested in that, so we can go ahead.” I’m working on a book now that started with an image that came to me twenty years ago that I have not been able to shake. I thought, “All right, if you can hold my interest for twenty years, I’m going to pay some attention to you.”
I have a tendency to become a banal realist if I’m not careful. By putting these weird elements in, I guarantee that that won’t happen. Putting something ugly or ungainly or futuristic in a story might be a form of pre-compensation. I have a tendency to be sentimental and overly lyrical, and if I put in some science fiction shit, it destabilizes everything sufficiently that I can’t drift back to that banal mode. Even if my kneejerk tendency toward sentimentality tries to assert itself, a story reads differently once we have some nympho robots wandering around.
Image: I’ve been fascinated by the names you give your characters and places. How do these names come to you—as you’re writing, or do you think of them beforehand?
GS: If they don’t come at-speed, as I’m writing the story, they are false. They have to make sonic sense, given their location in the sentence.
When you’re inside the world of a story, there’s an incredible swirl of meanings, and your mind is working at a very high level, very intuitively. The right name will often just pop out. I never liked the idea of having a character’s name reflect his character, like having an impotent guy be called Mr. Limp. It seems somehow unfair.
But anything can work. There was a time when our daughter was little and I would shout into the next room, “Sweetie, character name!” and she’d say something like, “Gil Fern!” and I’d shout back, “Thank you,” and put it right in.
Those were the days. Now I have to call her in Chicago.
Photo in header by Robert Birnbaum.