Thursday, February 10, 2011

George Saunders, Part Two

All the writers that come to Butler share their thoughts on the craft, but the ones who do so by opening up and sharing of themselves are the ones who remain with us. George Saunders was one of those authors.

Here are some of his comments from the Q & A sessions from his visit. Saunders was asked about his background in geophysics and how this informs his writing. He answered that back when he first worked in the oil fields of Sumatra he read Ayn Rand and saw himself as a right-winger. But, as time went on, working in far-flung parts of the world served to open his eyes and reform his politics, and, naturally, this informs his fiction. About writing in general he commented that all our minds are similar, and that anything that manifests in the world has a presence in each of us.

Saunders said that at one point in his life his worst fear came true: he had an office job. At that time he thought that in order to find stories he had to be in an exotic locale, but he soon realized that his boring office job was a blessing in disguise -- it showed him that stories were all around him, wherever he was.

Saunders reported that after the birth of his second child he found himself able to allow humor into his work, and that bits of wisdom manifested as he wrote freely. He sought to emulate the clean, spare sentences of Barry Hannah and Raymond Carver, and convey his ideas using as few words as possible, even if the sentences lost some of their elegance.

When asked what advice he would give aspiring writers he emphasized revision. He said any given piece of writing has infinite doors, and that a writer should live with a story a long time before sending it out. In this way, if the piece is rejected, at least the author can feel (s)he sent out his/her best work. Saunders revises obsessively, and he sees this same trait among other writers who succeed in publishing their work. Many pieces, he suggested, would improve if only the author let them sit awhile and then revisited them at a later date. Saunders emphasized how vital it is not to short-shrift revision.

I asked Saunders about his recent move into the realm of nonfiction with "The Brain-Dead Megaphone," a collection of essays. He replied that he sees himself primarily as a fiction writer, that he's better at short stories than big ideas (I'm not sure I agree with him on this point.) He said his essay, The New Mecca, was written as an assignment for GQ, He joked that his daughter claimed he never did anything cool, so he accepted the job, and was sent to four-star hotels in Dubai. He feels his nonfiction work allowed him to more fully describe the physical world in which his writing took place. When I asked Saunders if the book's title essay most conveyed his essence, Saunders said yes, although he added that he thought the piece was preachier than he would have liked.

I smile when I think about how his face brightened when he did an impersonation, as if morphing into a playful 15-year-old. Mr. Saunders, you were open-hearted and generous. Thank you.

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