Friday, February 08, 2013


George Saunders, possibly my favorite currently-working short-story writer (with periodic competition from Haruki Murakami), recently came through San Francisco to promote his new book, Tenth of December. When I first saw the news on his Facebook page, I was initially delighted, then slightly aghast. "They're holding it in Book Passage?" I thought. "There's no way they'll be able to fit everyone in there!"

Anticipation built in the lead-up to the event. Tenth of December has received glowing praise from some major outlets, including the New York Times, which proclaimed it "the best book you'll read this year." My brother went to his talk at Lincoln Hall in Chicago back in January, and reported that it was packed with throngs of fans. That should have tipped me off to arrive extra-early to the event, but for whatever reason I left work around my normal time, and arrived at Book Passage around a quarter to six.

It was already clearly bursting with people. Enough were standing just inside the door that getting inside would be a challenge. And, standing patiently just outside, was... George Saunders! He was speaking with a woman who seemed to be helping coordinate the event - perhaps a publicist or agent. He seemed calm, amused, and curious, gently smiling at people nearby while they discussed whatever they were talking about. Not wanting to shove past the guest of honor, I hung back for a bit until they moved on, then wormed my way to the counter and picked up a copy of Tenth of December. While the clerk was ringing it up, George worked his way back past me. Gesturing towards the variety of his books on display, he said, "I recommend you buy one of each of these." Everyone laughed. "For your own best interest, of course," he added, still shyly smiling. "Nothing wrong with self-promotion," the woman added.

I made myself as skinny as I could and endured the flow of human traffic while waiting for the event to start. Fortunately, Saunders seems to attract fans like himself: kind, patient people who accept discomfort with good grace. I didn't hear anyone complain or see anyone leave before the event was over. There's a certain sort of sacramental quality to author events, and a small element of pain can help heighten the experience.

Another woman who may be an owner or manager of the store welcomed everyone and thanked us for coming out and supporting independent bookstores. Saunders was standing nearby, and I noticed that he started off a round of applause for those independent bookstores. Neat! She gave a glowing introduction, recapping the recent praise from the Times, NPR, and various other critics and outlets; she also talked about Saunders' influence on a new generation of writers and his admirable personal qualities, then welcomed him to the microphone to the loud sound of clapping. People who had arrived even later than me were standing outside, and they had thoughtfully hooked up a sound system so everyone could hear. (Thanks to the glass walls, at least some of them were hopefully able to see him as well.)

Saunders thanked everyone for coming: I think he said that this was the first time he'd been to San Francisco since his first book tour (which, if my miniscule research is correct, would have been over 15 years ago), and that he appreciates how supportive the city has been of his books. He also showed some wonderful, self-deprecating humor. "Let's all make a pact to not read another book all year. It will save Joel Lovell some embarrassment."

He said that, since so many people were standing, he would pick a shorter reading, and then answer questions. His reading was a diary excerpt from The Semplica-Girl Diaries.

Tenth of December is a collection of short stories, most of which I've read previously in The New Yorker and a few of which have appeared in other magazines (including McSweeney's Quarterly Concern!). I'm pretty sure that Semplica-Girl is the most recent, since it was just published in the New Yorker last fall. It's an incredible story. Like many of Saunders' stories, it seems to occupy a near-future time, where recognizable trends in contemporary American life have metastasized into something something slightly more horrifying. Also like some of his recent stories, it strikes this really fascinating and challenging balance, where you strongly empathize with a character while (hopefully) rejecting their worldview. (See also the excellent Victory Lap, another story that destroyed me when I first read it in the New Yorker. In Victory Lap, we see a young boy who has accepted the values system enforced by his parents; it isn't an evil system, but one that's probably harmful. The boy is confronted with an awful situation, and every thing about his ingrained sense of morality tells him to walk away from it. He somehow overcomes it, finding within himself a spark of pure morality that tells him that he needs to act. What's so brilliant about Saunders' story is that, within the context of the tale, the boy thinks that he is sinning, thinks that he is doing the wrong thing, which makes his actions all the more brave. I want to praise him and weep for him at the same time.)

Anyways! He read the excerpt, after prefacing it briefly: he explained that this is an excerpt from a diary, and that "when I say 'equals,' in the text there's an actual equals sign there. It's funny if you read it. Trust me." He launched into the story, in which the narrator writes about the sudden, surprising death of a co-worker, the strange and disturbing (and inadvertently funny) funeral service, and the way it made him freshly appreciative of his own family life, his wife and his children.

I hate to admit it, but I actually don't remember reading this. I'm not sure if this was a passage that was edited out of the New Yorker version, or if the later events in the story crowded this entry out of my mind. I think I do recall the co-worker's death and how it creates an impulse to do something nice for his family, but most of the other elements in the story (the priest, the brother's eulogy) seemed original. Maybe it was Saunders' wonderful reading voice that made it seem fresh.

There's a lot of humor in that passage, leavened with sadness, and there were appreciative chuckles throughout the reading. When he was done, he asked for any questions. When nobody immediately raised their hand, he commented, "I have to say, I've been doing this for a while, and I've noticed that, invariably, the first person to ask a question is the person with the highest sexual energy in the room." Everyone laughed. An older woman faked out asking a question, but a younger man did it for real. ("Congratulations," Saunders said.)

As is my wont, I'll write up the questions and his responses, to the best of my recollection.

"I understand that you're a practicing Buddhist. Feel free to not answer this if you don't want to, but I was wondering how it has affected your work?"

Saunders has been a student of Nyingma Buddhism for many years. He used to talk about it a lot, but as he got further along, he realized that you're not supposed to discuss it. So, he can't directly address it, but will talk around the question.

Religion is important to him, and has been important to his writing. He grew up Catholic and attended a Catholic school. "And Catholic, in Chicago, is the most Catholic you can get!" While in school, the nuns would make the children go through the Stations of the Cross. It was interesting, because they would direct the children to vividly imagine being participants in the story, and specifically, being Jesus's persecuters. They would tell the children to imagine that they were a Roman soldier, and try to imagine what they were thinking, and how they would have felt about what they were doing. Saunders thinks that this kind of sacramental activity opens up a space in childrens' minds, which can be very valuable later in life.

"You grew up on the Southwest Side of Chicago Chicago. I read that you had recently gone back and visited the old neighborhood. What do you think you got from the experience of growing up in that part of the city?"

"Is your name Brian?" It turns out that George recognized the questioner: apparently, they had attended elementary school together! That's pretty incredible. (I would end up a few people behind Brian in the signing line, and overheard him say that he had lost track of Saunders, and only recently started reading about him and realized that he had become an author.) To the question: Saunders got a lot out of their neighborhood. It always struck him as a Russian neighborhood, and was one that valued quippy humor: if you could tell a good joke, and make people laugh, then the adults would take you into your circle. So, from an early age, he learned that there was value in amusing people.

"How do you strike a balance between writing based off of your life experiences, and drawing from literature?"

There ended up being a LOT of questions about writing, and even when the question wasn't directly about writing, Saunders often smoothly segued into some fascinating insight. This was unusual - many authors are famously reluctant to talk about the process of writing, and loathe questions like "Where do you get your ideas" - yet it made sense the more I thought about it. After all, Saunders is, by profession, a creative writing teacher, and he has spent decades talking and thinking about how to write good stories. At one point, he asked the audience, "How many people here are writers?" before immediately interrupting himself with, "I bet everyone here is a writer." He quoted someone (I wish I could remember who!) as saying, "America has finally reached the critical moment in its history when the number of writers equals the number of readers."

He said that, for him, life experience is the key. You need to have something to say, something that can energize your writing. At Syracuse, he often sees that when young people come into the program directly from college, they're often very bright but don't have a whole lot of experiences from the real world to draw on; because of this, they usually fall back on technique. In contrast, the people who come into the program after working for a few years are just slightly more grizzled, and seem to have some extra direction and energy that they can put into their work.

But, one of the best novels that he's read in years is from a very young man (again, I wish I could remember the name!), so it isn't as if you need to have "gone out into the world" to write something wonderful. As with many of Saunders' observations, he pointed out that he can describe what has worked for him in the past, but cautions that other people may find they work differently.

"How do you know when to stop revising a story?"

In general, he thinks that people should revise more than they do. People generally don't like doing it, but they should continue to practice revising, and they will get better as they do it. You should be merciless. He's reminded of something a musician/composer friend of his said: "When you make a new piece of music, you should immediately go and listen to one of your musical idols. Like Bob Dylan or whoever you most admire. Think about how your music compares to this. You'll think that it sucks. And that's important: it proves that you still have taste! But, you'll start asking yourself why it sucks, and how to make it better. It's a painful process, but absolutely necessary if you want to be a good writer."

This may also have been when he gave an example of tightening up a sentence. It starts with, "Bob entered the room and sat down on the blue couch." Okay. A little wordy. What does the word "down" add to the sentence? It's a bit redundant with "sat". So now, it's "Bob entered the room and sat on the blue couch." A little better. Is it important that Bob entered the room? Does it give anything new to the story? No, not really. So let's cut it out. "Bob sat on the blue couch." This sentence is working better now. Can we make it any better? Well, why is the couch blue? Am I going to do anything with that? No? Well, let's cut it out. "Bob sat on the couch." (Long pause.) Do we really need the couch? Is it integral to the story? (Long pause.) "Bob." Well, all that we have left is a noun. But it's a good noun!

"What is your favorite story that you've written?"

He claims to not be very fond of any of them, though he's grateful that people enjoy them.  He named one exception, and I'm kicking myself for not remembering which one, but he says that he didn't understand the story while he was writing it, and still doesn't understand it now, and because of that it's still interesting to him.

"You mentioned that you had discovered that you could make your stories better by setting them in a theme park. How did you come up with that idea?"

Incredibly enough, it was from a dream. He had written a story that wasn't quite working - there was something there, but he couldn't figure out how to make it good. Then, in this dream, he was in a living room, and looking out the window. He saw a button, and pressed it; suddenly, all of the objects in the room began floating up, as if they had escaped from gravity. It was a wondrous sight. Then, all these other people came into the room and started touching the objects. He got irritated, and said, "Sir! Please don't touch those!" And then he woke up. That vivid sensation he got in his dream was something he decided to put into his story, and from then on it was a tool he could draw on.

"'Adams' is one of my favorite stories. I was wondering if you could say a little about how you wrote it?"

It kind of came out during the time that George W Bush was making the case for the Iraq was by claiming that Iraq had WMDs. Like a lot of good liberals, Saunders thought, "No... no, they don't!" But he couldn't be totally sure. But he was pretty sure that they didn't, and it seemed like a lousy case for starting a war. So, "Adams" started as a piece that he wrote to try and work through the political issues he was thinking about. Over time, it transformed into something different, but that's where it started.

"As a bookseller, I've noticed that a lot of people are connecting with your work, and what's interesting is that, they often read it as poetry. Is that something deliberate that you've done?"

George is very gratified to hear that. In a way, it is what he's trying to do. When he's writing, he's very focused on language, and very focused on trying to make the words as strong they can, which is something that poetry tries to do. However, he points out that he's often working with deliberately ugly language: technical speak, bureaucratic talk, commercials. So, it may be a kind of poetry, but it's the ugliest kind of poetry.

"I heard that [a female author's name - argh, why do I write these things when I don't take notes!] taught with you at Syracuse. I was wondering whether you learned anything from her?"

Yes! They only worked together briefly, and that was eight years ago, but she was very influential, and he still thinks often about what she taught him. One thing in particular had to do with the intersection of psychology and literature. By analyzing the brains of people while reading or listening, scientists have been able to demonstrate that people have similar reactions to poems, short stories, and jokes: in all cases, the instant that you read that final period, your brain immediately jumps back to the very start of the poem, story, or joke, and rapidly replays it, analyzing it for efficiency. There's something biological that makes us evaluate the piece, and determine how necessary it was; people will know immediately after reading it whether it had unnecessary digressions, or whether something early on proved to be important later. That insight has definitely affected the way he writes.

"How important do you think it is for you to develop your own voice?"

(Warning: this paragraph contains profanity.) Everyone seems to go through the same process. When you first start writing, there's probably some writer you admire most. Maybe it's Margaret Atwood. You decide that you want to be like Margaret Atwood, and start scaling that Margaret Atwood mountain. You climb higher and higher, all excited - "I'm going to be a great writer, like her!" But, the stuff you write is shit. You keep trying to get higher, but get discouraged. "Whenever I try to write like Margaret Atwood, all I can write is shit!" Dejected, you come back down from the mountain. "I guess I can't become a great writer by imitating Atwood... how about Toni Morrison?" And then you try climbing the Toni Morrison mountain. Sooner or later, you realize that you can't compare with any of these great mountains of writers. All you make is shit. But... but it's your shit. So, you pile your shit into a little mound, and stick a flag in it that says "George." It's small, and it's awful, but nobody else is on your mountain. So, over time, you start piling on more shit, and gradually turn your mound into a hill.

(Incidentally: these written words are in no way any sort of substitute for Saunders' speaking. I can't capture his funny phrases, facial expressions, all the things that make him such a wonderful speaker. Sorry. If you ever have the opportunity to see him in person, I highly recommend it!)

So: finding your unique voice is crucial. It's hard, but if you're going to write anything worth writing, you need to learn how to write like yourself. (I won't recap the well-reported and very interesting tale of Saunders' own idolization of Hemingway as a young wannabe writer.)

"When I was in college, my professor was also a good liberal guy, but he didn't care much for Kurt Vonnegut. He specifically disliked Vonnegut's fatalism, like when he writes 'So it goes.' I was wondering if you have any thoughts about that opinion?"

Saunders said that that's a question he'll need to think about, and he doesn't have an immediate answer to it. And that's fine. More generally, he says, he finds that one of the most powerful forces you can get in writing is being able to keep two contradictory ideas in your mind without making a decision about which one is right. Doing this can lead you to do some very interesting things in your writing.

As an example, he gave an experience he'd had when he agreed to write about the Mexican-American border for a travel magazine. Being the good liberal he is, he already knew the answer: open up the border! So he confidently accepted the job, figuring, I'll just head down there, maybe grab a couple of facts to support my case, and then just type it up. Well, once he got there, he was confronted with stories that immediately shook his convictions. On his very first day, he spoke with a pastor who told him about a family that tried to cross the border into Texas. They were pursued by Mexican criminals into the States. The criminals murdered the father and raped the daughter. The mother was already pregnant, and died when giving childbirth. Well. That was all clearly horrifying. So, he had a new position: "Close the border! Lock it down!" The very next day, he met a man who had come over illegally decades ago, and had literally built a seven-room house out of cinderblocks. He had a family and was living a successful life. What message do you take from that? "Open up the border! Give better opportunities to more people!" At the end of his trip, he was far more confused about the issue than he was when he started. And, he thinks, that led him to write a much better and more interesting piece.

So, going back to the original question: he doesn't have a good answer about how to reconcile an admiration of Vonnegut with a disapproval of his fatalism... but reconciliation may not be necessary, and perhaps not even desirable.

(A side, personal note: I think this is a really interesting topic. Not necessarily the question as phrased, but just the idea about how Vonnegut and Saunders might relate to one another. I enjoy both authors a great deal, and I think they both have a lot in common: both came from the midwest, had technical backgrounds, wrote from a strong moral compass that came from their own experiences, yet wrote in interesting, creative settings that seem tinged by science-fiction while still reading as literary. And I also think they're two of the most impressive humanists of the past century. Vonnegut is more explicitly humanist than Saunders, but I think both of them have, at the core of their writing, a deep love of man. Both are often described as satirical, yet I don't think either of them truly are... they see the ugliness that people are capable of, and it distresses them all the more because they also see the value of each person's life. They can use dark humor to make their points in shocking and effective ways. All that said, I would never confuse one of their stories for the other's: their styles are very different from one another, as is the way they construct their plots and how they depict their characters. I'm also intrigued by the idea that Vonnegut is a fatalist. I wouldn't use that word to describe him. I tend to take "So it goes" as a kind of quiet prayer for the sad things that have happened. The past is past; we can mourn it, but can't change it. I feel like so much of Vonnegut's writing is actually stressing the importance of action, of being good citizens of the planet, of showing compassion for our brothers and sisters. It's an obligation that he frequently depicts being broken, but that remains no less important for us to try and honor. "There's only one rule that I know of, babies - God damn it, you've got to be kind.")

"Your characters have such interesting voices. Do you find them getting into your head, or spilling into your own life?"

Saunders has always enjoyed coming up with voices, even in a literal sense. When he was in school, he was on the basketball team. He never actually played basketball, just sat on the bench. He and one of his friends would make fun of players on the other team: they came up with nicknames, and would invent whole back-stories for them, and give a unique funny voice to each opponent. For example, there was one team with older kids, including one kid with facial hair, and facial hair on his facial hair. They called him Mister Mustache, and would crack wise whenever he went past the bench. Eventually, their coach told them that they sounded fey and to knock it off. So, he stopped doing those voices. But it isn't totally different from what he does now: he actually has a particular sound in his head for each of his characters, and if he can get that sound entertaining enough, then it will come through in his writing.

Unlike some other writers, he isn't into Method Writing or something of that sort. Other people will say something like, "I create my characters, and then they speak to me and tell me what to do." Nope. His characters are strictly one-way creations, and never talk back. And, once he's done with a story, he puts the voice away.

Finally, one anecdote from him that may have been attached to one of the above questions, or might have come from another one that I've forgotten:

I'd read in other contexts about his evolution from an Ayn Rand-worshipping young idealistic libertarian into his current liberal humanist self. I had NOT heard, though, that at one point he was in a band! I think he said that he played guitar. Another person in the band knew a guy, who knew a guy, who knew a guy, who knew someone who was in the Eagles... so obviously they were going to be huge. At one point, he had a very specific thought that ended up motivating him to change his course in life: he saw himself on a college campus. It was a very idealized college campus, with, like, men wearing sweaters with a single large letter on them. But he just got this really powerful idea that, "I'm going to go to college, and become an intellectual." While he now despises Ayn Rand ("Well, not her personally, because she's dead. I just think that her philosophy has caused so much harm."), he loved her novel since it was the first novel he'd ever read, and from her he got this ambition to become an intellectual writer, which set him on the course that has led to today.

I'm sure there were many more questions that I've forgotten, and I already feel bad about not capturing his tone correctly in his responses to the ones I did remember. He was very generous with his time and each questioner, and, as the owner/manager/whoever said at the end of questions, it felt like we'd all just completed a seminar on writing. Very cool!

The whole program, including reading and questions, ran for almost exactly one hour, after which he signed books. I always stick around for these things, and I always end up near the end of the line - not intentionally, I just either am standing in the wrong place, or move to the wrong area when the main program ends, or else am just not aggressive enough in entering the line. It was a pleasant line, but pretty long - I think I was there for about ninety minutes before I reached the front. It's all good, though. The reason it took so long was because he really engaged with each person in the line. It was pretty incredible - he shook hands with almost everyone (which might not sound like a big deal, but in my experience is actually very rare at author events - most people are understandably apprehensive about catching a cold from a stranger) and chatted for a while with each person: about his books, or about their lives, or whatever. I saw him give Brian a hug, which was awesome. George seems like one of the kindest people I've ever met in my life.

As usual, I was very self-conscious about not taking too much of his time. I gladly shook his hand and thanked him for sticking around. He asked if I was a writer. "Um, not really... well, I've done some technical writing," I stammered, then blurted out something about how much I'd enjoyed CommComm. That was the first short story of his that I'd ever read, and it made a big impression on me. He listened graciously, then said, "Well, you know, I used to be a technical writer, and we did a lot of work with the Department of Defense, back when they were closing military bases." He talked about how CommComm was inspired in part by his work at that time. "Wow, so a lot of that bureaucratic language and doublespeak came from your own experiences there!" I exclaimed. We talked for just a little more before I took my leave.

I'd been daydreaming a little about writing while I was waiting in line. I've always loved writing stories, going all the way back to "War with Venus" in the second grade. It's always been an ambition of mine, but never anything I've pursued with any diligence, and it's been years since the last time I worked on any fiction. The last piece I was even vaguely proud of was "Empty," a short story I wrote for a creative writing course back in college. Reflecting over the things Saunders had said, I realized that my own mountains that I had been attempting to climb at that time were the mountains of Thomas Pynchon, Daniel Orozco, and Robert Anton Wilson. Those are all writers who I particularly enjoyed (and enjoy!), and I was trying to recreate the wonderful chilly strangeness of their works, and became discouraged when I couldn't. I'm pretty sure that I'll never become a writer of fiction, and kind of doubt that I will give it a serious try, but I feel like if I ever do, it will be thanks to the wonderful guidance that George Saunders so generously imparted on this night, delivering an impromptu master's seminar in the process of creating a story.

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