Season 5, Episode 12
George Saunders + Ben Arthur (Part 1)

Season 5, Episode 13
George Saunders + Craig Finn (Part 2)

George Saunders

George Saunders, photo by Zach Krahmer

George Saunders isn’t as pissed off as he used to be. He was reminded of this while talking about his story, “Sea Oak,” and the new song Craig Finn of The Hold Steady wrote in response.

“That story’s quite old, and your song brought me back to the feeling of writing it, when you’ve got a rage that’s coming to you so clearly,” George says, before laughing. “Of course, I’ve gotten fat and bourgeois and affluent since then.”

Like George, the story contains multitudes. A furious jeremiad against American capitalism and cruel consumer culture is nested within a zombie story that is somehow at once sentimental, horrifying, and bawdy. (It is also a rare opportunity to hear a Booker Prize-winning MacArthur genius repeatedly say the phrase “show your cock!”)
The song Craig wrote in response, “Swan’s Glen,” is a call-to-action against inequity and exploitation. He sings: And if there’s crossfire in the courtyards/Let it take out those bastards/The ones with their thumbs above the buttons/And if heads get kicked in/Let the bloody boots belong to us

“If you have a family, if you have children, if you just have people you love,” Craig says, “you can feel even more desperate, and even more backed into a corner.”

George told Craig that part of the story was inspired by a visit to a local mall with his two small children. There was a beautiful carousel, and of course the kids wanted a ride.

“If you were on the carousel, one of the things you passed, over and over, was a Hooters,” he says. Watching his daughters take in this scene, George found himself wondering,   "Why is this place in a mall?"  And then, later, “Hey, what would Hooters look like if the world was run by women?”

Craig Finn

Craig Finn, photo by D. James Goodwin

In the story this becomes a demeaning job for the narrator, who struggles to appeal to his female customers. (Close readers may have already guessed the advice offered to him.)

During the recording process, the bridge of Craig’s song became a breakdown, his lyrics backed by long, open chords on piano and acoustic. Dynamics are important to Craig, not just within a song but also in live shows.

“I got to speak years ago with Bruce Springsteen, and he was like, ‘You’ve got to break their heart, because then when you bring them up, it’s way more thrilling,” Craig says. “It’s like a bigger, bigger roller coaster – you’ve got to get them all the way down to the floor first.”


Because George’s story is almost an hour long, the episode is broken into two parts, with Craig’s song at the end of part two. I wrote a new song in response to “Sea Oak” for the end of part one, and sent the half-finished demo to both George and the extraordinary songwriter Vienna Teng, hoping I could bait one or the other into collaborating.

A few weeks later George sent some lyrics that I couldn’t figure out how to fit into the song (more “cock” than you traditionally expect in a mid-tempo waltz), so I sent them off to Vienna. I was laugh-out-loud delighted when I received her recorded parts: the beautiful lead vocal and harmonies, a ripping piano solo for the bridge, and George’s lyrics in a counter-melody chorus that is splendid and bracing, and hard as a rock.


Audio excerpted courtesy of The Penguin Random House Audio from Pastoralia, by George Saunders, narrated by the author
© 2000 George Saunders, 2000 Random House Audio