Cover art for "Liberation Day" owned by Penguin Random House. Photo credit: Zach Krahmer.

In his new collection of short stories, “Liberation Day,” 2017 Booker Prize winner George Saunders flexes his talent for writing the human perspective. As readers, we’re often shown distorted, or at least incomplete, narratives — from wiped memories to multiple points of view, the narrators of Saunders’s latest work rarely tell the whole story. And they’re all the more human for it.

In an email interview with The Michigan Daily, Saunders wrote about his approach to these conceptual narratives. He pointed out one story in the collection, “Elliot Spencer,” which is written from the perspective of a man who has had his memory wiped.

“I just thought: I wonder what a person would sound like if you wiped out everything in their brain and made them start over,” Saunders wrote. “And that was challenging and fun, and as I tried to find and refine that voice, the world appeared and the story started getting told, in that voice.”

Saunders’s characters are often linked to or are even reflections of their environment. Like much of his work, the stories in this collection tend toward the speculative: In the titular story, we read of people known as “Speakers” who are bound to a wall and launch into vocal performances like a sort of sentient instrument when given prompts from a man at a computer.

But the tone of the collection is easy and light. One character tries to reassure the Speakers: “There are many of us who see this thing for the monstrous excess it is. You’re human beings. You are … help is coming. It is. Soon.” 

They’re unfazed. “Lauren and Craig and I exchange looks of: Wow, thanks, adult son Mike, we did not know, until you just now told us, that we are human beings.”

That tone, and the personableness of the narrators, helps the reader ease into even the strangest settings. These worlds are so naturally constructed, with their exposition sprinkled through the narration of their characters.

“The main thing is to keep yourself in the mindset of the character — don’t let her tell the reader anything that feels unnatural for her to be thinking,” Saunders writes. “Just like now, we don’t think, ‘Clive took out his cellphone — a small digital communications device — and called Sally.’ So, the world gets built naturally when you try to think like a person in that time and space.”

Even in the most extreme situations — like an amusement park in an underground bunker, with a suspiciously rigid set of social codes — Saunders’s character-first world building never feels artificial. And while there are certainly political or cultural themes baked into these worlds, the author says these ideas arise naturally in his process. 

“My method is to write, mostly by sound and humor, and then rewrite endlessly until something starts to take shape,” Saunders writes. “I do almost no pre-thinking or planning of the ‘What do I want to say?’ variety. I’m writing, really, to find out what I will say.”

In reading “Liberation Day,” you feel much of this spontaneity, and therefore closeness, with the characters. As the reader, we’re not living in an underground amusement park, we’re living in the head of the person assigned to play Squatting Ghoul #3 in that park. So of course we’d be served soup with a single KitKat for dinner. And of course we’d dutifully participate in the public beating of a coworker who misbehaved. 

It’s this absorption that gives Saunders’s short stories such impact. And visceral effect is his intention.

“I’m guessing that something got into my head about the way social media is mastering us,” Saunders wrote, “injecting us with agenda-laced opinions that we then mistake for our own, and so on — but if that’s all I wanted to say … I could’ve just said that, you know? So I see my goal as being similar to that of a roller-coaster designer: I am trying to make something that will give the reader such a thrill that, for a few minutes after, she’s just sort of happily stunned and quiet.”

To young writers, Saunders offers some advice: “It really is all about rewriting … Instead of thinking of rewriting as ‘fixing problems,’ I think of it as chance after chance to get more of myself into the story. I think of revising as being a little like that bit in ‘The Matrix’ where time slows down during a fight. We get a chance to look at the events of the story with more care and curiosity than in real life, where everything is always happening so fast.”

“Liberation Day” is now on sale. Saunders will be in Ann Arbor on Oct. 28 to speak at First United Methodist Church, in an event organized by Literati Bookstore.

Books Beat Editor Julian Wray can be reached at jwray@umich.edu