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George Saunders – The Prince of Short Stories

February 11, 2013

GS139shrpnXBGeorge 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.

George and Cheryl

George and Cheryl

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.

GS146shrpnXBWith regard to his Hemingway Boner:

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.

Listen to an audio clip of Saunders’ simple advice on how to write.

Tenth of December

Random House, 2013

  1. Yay! I win the prize for “First to Like This.” If I lived in Portland, I’d be a great writer because that’s where all the good writers go. Diane, you always snag the bites of conversation that inspire me. Love how Saunders describes getting rid of his “Hemingway boner.” Nice. Everyone’s raving about Tenth of December, so I’ve gotta buy it right away. Want to read these “sometimes dark, but always funny” stories. And the audio on Saunders’ simple tips for writing–more inspiration! Thanks, Diane.

  2. The “t” in “First to Like This” needs to be capitalized. Must return to grammar school!

  3. John McNeese permalink

    I was there and this is a perfect rendition of what happened.

  4. Wonderful post! But now I’m jealous of Cynthia for being the first to “like” this page.

  5. You’re all firsts in my book!

  6. kcecelia permalink

    This is a stellar review; I feel like I was there, and I would love to be in Portland. I’ve been trying to keep from buying yet another book, but you have convinced me that I must read this. Saunders read to a sold-out crowd in Book Passage in Corte Madera, so the enthusiasm seems to be general. Have you read Saunders children’s book The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip? I love the book, and have a copy signed by both Saunders and the illustrator, the wondrous Lane Smith. So, I’m a happy woman. Lastly, I have finally collected myself enough to follow your blog. (It’s about time.) Here’s a link to TVPGoF:

    • Thank you for your kind words. So glad to have you aboard. I actually received my signed first edition of Tenth from Book Passage today. The publisher had sent me a second edition to review. I got that signed too, of course. Lucky you to have a signed Gappers. I saw a copy at Powell’s but it was a 6th printing so I passed.

  7. Actually, a study done several years back suggested there are more writers than readers (measuring the proliferation of writing programs against the decline in literary reading). I can link you, if you like. More the point, my copy of ‘Tenth of December’ is on its way.

  8. I can believe that. Some writers I’ve interviewed have told me they don’t read. Yikes.

  9. Jim Carmin permalink

    Thanks again for this, Diane!

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