George Saunders – The Prince of Short Stories
George Saunders is deep into tour mode for his new book, Tenth of December, his fourth short story collection. Described by some as a writer’s writer, he has a strong cult following, but this book will no doubt place him securely into the literary mainstream. Superlatives have been flying: Dave Eggers says, “George Saunders is a complete original, unlike anyone else, thank god—and yet still he manages to be the rightful heir to three other complete American originals—Barthelme (the lyricism, the playfulness), Vonnegut (the outrage, the wit, the scope), and Twain (the common sense, the exasperation).” “George Saunders makes the all-but-impossible look effortless. We’re lucky to have him,” says Jonathan Franzen. Plus, the man’s won a MacArthur “genius” grant and the National Magazine Award for fiction four times. Finally, the New York Times declared his book “the best book you’ll read this year.”
Okay. That’s hard to believe. It must be hyperbole, right? Wrong. It’s all true, the book’s fantastic! It’s a mesmerizing meaty dish of sometimes dark, but always funny vignettes. But there’s more. From what I gathered during his reading, and the short time I talked to him and took his picture, he’s also a really nice, down-to-earth guy, as well. And, he’s never published a novel–he’s strictly a short story man. Amazing.
Lately, he’s been on NPR, PBS, and every other media outlet you can think of, so it came as no surprise to me when he was hustled in to his Powell’s reading at the last minute via the fire door last Friday. A crowd of three hundred fans–including Portland’s own Cheryl Strayed who studied under Saunders while at Syracuse–broke into spontaneous applause and cheers. Having just come from the airport, he quickly pulled off his jacket, grabbed a bottled water, and got right into things.
Despite what must be a grueling tour, he looked fresh not frazzled, read in perfect pitch, and left the audience laughing and clapping during an extensive Q&A. Some of the best bits of the night follow, but I highly recommend you catch him in person if you can. You won’t be sorry.
To entice someone to ask that pesky first question Saunders threw this out:
I’ve been doing a lot of readings, and it’s a weird thing…the person who asks the first question invariably has the highest sexual energy in the entire room. It’s like this Darwinian kind of thing.
About his anxiety:
I’m anxious, yeah. I think to me the natural state if you’re at all alive is anxiety because you’re always falling short.
What happened with me is I had this medical affliction called a Hemingway boner. I was a working-class kid and didn’t know any writers and Hemingway was the first writer that really cleaned my clock. Like a lot of people, I started re-construing my life in Hemingwayesque terms, but my life wasn’t at all Hemingwayesque. So, for many years it was a trap that would lead to zingers like ‘Nick walked into the Wal-Mart. It was pleasant.’
How Saunders found his funny bone and got rid of his Hemingway Boner:
I grew up in Chicago. Humor was the way you communicated all emotion, you know…When I was a young writer I thought that was low. I thought that it was an expression of inability. It was kind of a cheap thing. I didn’t trust it. So at this point, when I was in my thirties and nothing was happening, I finally, over a two- or three-day period, had this crisis where I just thought “Man, it’s like I’m getting beat up in an alley and I’ve got one arm behind my back. What am I doing wrong here?” In a kind of a two-day thing, I sort of gave myself permission to start being funny. But one of the tricks that I used was I put a story in a theme park…a water park, I think… The weird thing was that to mechanically put the water park in there kind of disabled the Hemingwayesque prose. If you’re having a sort of static manly prose and you’re working to maintain the wave-making machine…So seriously, one of the things I realized is that most of us who are writers–I’m guessing most of us are because Gary Shteyngart has this great line that we’ve reached the point in American letters where the number of writers is exactly equal to the number of readers–so anybody who’s a writer has to struggle, I think, with this issue of, uh, you have native charms. Of course you do, you’re a person. You know how to seduce somebody, you know how to charm somebody, you know how to get out of trouble, and I think a lot of times young writers don’t trust the things that they’re best at. In my case, funny is what I do all the time when I’m nervous, when I’m, you know…I think for some reason, psychologically, we keep the best virtues out. So, for me, the theme park was just a mechanical way to remind myself don’t be too serious.
Two false ideas about becoming a writer:
There are these two false ideas that I see: The first false idea is that if you want to be a writer you have to have an M.F.A. False. The second false idea is that if you get an M.F.A. you’re a writer. False.
Random House, 2013