Left, Syracuse University faculty member and author George Saunders, author and faculty member Mary Karr, and alumna and novelist Cheryl Strayed attended a celebration in November for the university’s creative writing program.
Author George Saunders seems to be all over the place right now. He has been interviewed on national television, and he was the focus of a profile in a recent New York Times Magazine article. He even made the cover of that magazine, and when was the last time an author appeared on the cover of a major magazine?
His newest story collection “Tenth of December” (Random House, 251 pages, $26), has even climbed as high as No. 3 on the New York Times Best-Sellers List. This is not bad for a writer who until this year was known primarily as the favorite author of the best literary writers in America. Now the secret is out, and the reading public is discovering that George Saunders may very well be the best short story writer today in the English language.
WHAT: Author reading from his latest story collection
WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesday
WHERE: New York State Writers Institute, Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center at the University at Albany Uptown Campus; he also will present a seminar at 4 p.m. in the Standish Room in the Science Library
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFORMATION: 442-5620, www.albany.edu/writers-inst/
“I feel honored that so many excellent writers enjoy reading my work,” said Saunders in a recent phone interview. “Their praise keeps me writing. It doesn’t intimidate me. It inspires me.”
Years ago when he first tried to write, he suffered from Catholic guilt, thinking no one will ever want to read this so why bother doing it. “I fought my way through that by telling myself to keep writing because I had so much fun doing it. Even if no one else ever read what I wrote, I decided to keep plugging along because I wanted to see how these stories that I began would conclude.”
Saunders found his way to writing a bit later than most successful authors. In the 1970s, he studied geophysical engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. He then worked for an oil-exploration company in the jungles of Sumatra.
“That’s when I really became a reader,” he said. “I’d work four weeks and then have two weeks off. On my leave, I’d stock up on books and that’s all I’d do when I wasn’t working. I was reading anything I could get my hands on.”
It was during this time that he happened upon Kurt Vonnegut’s book “Slaughterhouse-Five.” “That was the first book that made me stop and realize how important literature was and how it could change the way you actually thought,” he said. “That’s when I started to think I’d like to be a writer.”
It would be another five years though before he ever did publish anything, and his big break was being accepted into the graduate writing program at Syracuse University in 1985.
“That was important because I met real writers like Tobias Wolff and saw first-hand the effort that went into writing good fiction,” said Saunders.
He met his wife, Paula, in the program and they were soon married and starting a family. Now he was faced with the dilemma of having to provide for someone other than himself.
“I worked for the Radian Corporation in Rochester,” he said. “I was a technical writer for them during the day, but at night I’d spend two hours writing stories. I lived for those two hours.”
His first story collection “CivilWarLand” was published in 1996 and writers such as David Foster, Wallace and Jonathan Franzen hailed him as the best new writer in America. “Like most beginning writers my early work was an imitation of my favorite writers like Hemingway and Raymond Carver,” he said. “When I began to find my own voice and use humor in my stories that’s when I started to be noticed.”
His stories are often satires about the absurdity of corporate life and our capitalist society. They also have a singular style that reminds many readers of Vonnegut, who died in 2007. “I never met Vonnegut, and that’s always been a disappointment. I did meet his wife, Jill Krementz, once and she said she enjoyed my work, so hopefully he was aware of me. He and I were writing about the same things.”
Like Vonnegut, Saunders often employs science fiction as a way to satirize our modern day world. “I think that comes abut from my work as an engineer and my time in corporate America.”
His newest collection is filled with 10 stories that are very dark indeed, but they are also imbued with his natural wit and they include characters that are all too human, and characters a reader will care about.
“Humor is what allows us to get through this crazy world,” said Saunders. “I grew up in a family that was very funny, and whenever times got very emotional or sad, someone in my family would start busting out the jokes. I wouldn’t want to write or read these stories if they didn’t have some humor.”
He discovered years ago that by having his characters use an interior monologue he could create some humor. “In real life, we often think funny thoughts that we would never say because they would be inappropriate.”
For the last 16 years, he has taught in the graduate program at Syracuse. “I work with some exceptional writers. They keep me looking at my own process and how I write.”
He is always careful about not changing a beginning writer’s style to fit his own style. “But I can show them a few tricks that work for me, like how to take four pages of my writing and chop it down to one.”
He also enjoys showing his students how he is still being edited today by publications like The New Yorker. “I’ll show them a story I’ve submitted and then show them the comments sent back by a New Yorker editor with all the edits and cuts. I want my students to see that writing is still a process even for me.”
People are always asking him why he has not written a novel. “I tell them I’ve tried a few times, but I always lose my bearings. I understand the short story. I love the beauty of that form, and I like to begin a story not really sure where it’s going to take me. I can’t write a novel that way.”
He’s looking forward to his visit at the New York State Writers Institute. “My wife used to work there with Toni Morrison back in the early 1990s. We lived on Hudson Street, and I worked for Sterling Winthrop. The Writers Institute was important for me when I was learning how to write. It gave me the chance to hear people like Spike Lee and E.L. Doctorow talk about their writing process. It inspired me.”
Today, Saunders feels fortunate about the direction of his life. “I’m happily married. I have wonderful children, and I’m doing work I want to do, that I’m excited about. I wasn’t meant for the corporate life. I’m one of the lucky ones doing the work I was meant to do.”