Last night I went to a reading by George Saunders at Butler University. I wasn't familiar with Mr. Saunders work before going, but I'm very glad I made the effort to attend. George Saunders is known for his humorous and dark short stories, and he is equally funny and not at all dark in person.
He read a short story titled "Victory Lap," which appeared in The New Yorker on October 5, 2009. It hasn't appeared in one of Saunders' books yet, but he hopes it will be published in one next year. The story is told from three different perspectives and frequently elicited laughter from the audience as it built to a darker finish. I really enjoyed Mr. Saunders reading style. He was not at all dull, and I easily followed the story, which is something I sometimes have trouble with at readings.
Following the story, he fielded questions from the audience. George Saunders was one of the most articulate authors I've seen as part of the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series in awhile. I found his answers interesting and engaging. The first question was how his science training has influenced his writing. Saunders is from working-class Chicago and went to the Colorado School of Mines and then worked on what he called a "land-raper crew" in southeast Asia. He said his training got him out into the world, bringing him politics and changes in his world view.
In response to another question, Saunders said his early writing was cautious and not funny. He loved Hemingway and tried to emulate him. Eventually, after not being published for awhile and the birth of his second daughter, he started letting humor into his work.
Other audience members asked about his ability to channel bad parenting and the dark nature of his stories. Saunders said the bad parenting is not from his own experience, but mentioned recognizing over-protective, new age tendencies in himself. One of the most profound things he said, in my opinion, is that anything that manifests in your writing must have some presence in your mind. The key is to recognize and uses these presences rather than instinctively shut them down. In terms of being a happy person writing dark stories, Saunders mentioned two quotes, which he may have paraphrased but are completely quoted below.
"There ought to be behind the door of every happy, contented man some one standing with a hammer continually reminding him with a tap that there are unhappy people; that however happy he may be, life will show him her laws sooner or later, trouble will come for him - disease, poverty, losses, and no one will see or hear, just as now he neither sees nor hears others." - Anton Chekhov
"The writer can choose what he writes about but he cannot choose what he is able to make live." - Flannery O'ConnorLocal son Kurt Vonnegut was mentioned as a possible influence. Saunders said he is now, but not in his early work. He didn't start reading Vonnegut until after he had already been writing.
George Saunders is also a self-deprecating author. He considers himself to have a small wedge of talent that he nibbles away at. He tries not to repeat himself and is trying to stretch his boundaries as an author.
Following the Q&A, Mr. Saunders signed books, including CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, which may be made into a movie this year.
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CivilWarLand in Bad Decline
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