Last January, George Saunders, a Colorado School of Mines grad, released his latest book of short stories, Tenth of December. The New York Times called it “the best book you’ll read this year”—quite a feat considering the review came out just three days into 2014. The 55-year-old, a MacArthur Fellow and Story Prize winner, has long been lauded for his ability to craft stories about the disenfranchised with humor, grace, and empathy. On Saturday, September 20, Denverites will get to experience that skill firsthand when Saunders visits the Lighthouse Writers Workshop for an Inside the Writer’s Studio interview, reading, and book signing hosted by Colorado author Nick Arvin. (Saunders’ Sunday craft talk on the process of writing is sold out.) Before his visit, we asked Saunders a few questions of our own.
5280: You graduated with a degree in exploration geophysics. First off, what does that mean? Second: How do you transition from that to being a writer?
George Saunders: We were basically studying how to explore for oil using geophysical methods, especially seismic. So we’d drill a hole, put dynamite down it, blow it up, and record the resulting vibrations using sophisticated computers, then be able to make some conclusions about the subsurface structures and so on—in other words, where the oil was most likely to be. I got from there to writing by not being that great at it, and then picking up a bad case of wanderlust and life fascination while working in Asia. I also picked up a bad stomach virus that made me quit that job and start wandering around. And then, as in the old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice.
What inspires you and your writing?
I don’t know that I’m really inspired—I’m mostly just interested. And that comes from making a start at something. If I sit down in the morning and start reading what I’ve done the day before, that’s usually enough to get some energy (interest) going, even if it’s just the energy of disappointment.
Do you remember the first book you read or author that inspired you to think of writing as a career?
Probably Hemingway. I loved his myth: a guy who wrote, lived wildly, then came home and, uh, typed it up. It took me a while to realize that you didn’t just type it up. But I remember sitting in a restaurant in Golden, reading one of his novels, and feeling very elated at the notion that maybe I could have a life like that, if I really tried. That is, a life made of being in the world as intensely as I could, then reflecting on it in prose.
Describe your writing process. Where do you write? Do you keep to a schedule?
Basically I just sit down and read what I have already and start marking that up with a red pen. Then I put those changes in, print it out—and repeat. Over and over.
Do the characters, the plot, or the theme come first for you… or something else altogether?
Every story is different and, to be honest, I try not to think in terms of character or plot or theme. To me, those are all nice ways of breaking a story open for analysis, once it’s done, but when you’re looking at a piece of blank paper, it’s hard to think in those terms. At least it is for me. I am just trying to write a sentence that will compel you to read the next sentence, which will compel you to read the next sentences, and so on and so on, to the end of the story. If I can get you to read 20 pages worth of sentences, with mounting interest, then plot and character and theme will be there, for sure. They are byproducts. Like “happy memories” are a byproduct of “being in love.” And they will be there naturally and in a more surprising way than if I’d decided it all out in advance. That’s how it is for me, anyway.
What’s the secret to humor/satirical writing? How do you make something on the page induce a laugh or a smirk out of a reader?
Sadly, I don’t think there is a secret. It has to come naturally to you, I’d say. You have to find a way to make your actual sense of humor work on the page. Also, I think you have to take your reader seriously. If you are writing a piece that is, say, anti-cat, you have to imagine the smartest cat owner you can, someone just like you, but very fond of cats—you on a different day, or in a different life. One way a piece of satire can fall flat is when the writer is imagining the enemy as an irredeemable idiot.
How would you describe Tenth of December?
A great gift to give a large group of people in your life, like an entire Army division or a 150,000-employee multinational corporation.
Give us a preview of the writing class you’ll be teaching: What’s your number one piece of advice for aspiring writers?
The main thing is to recognize that there is no one process or approach that always works for everybody. We have to take our quirks and strengths and self-doubts and all of that, and sort of turn to them and say: Can you guys help me be unique? And really, the only way to get better is to work—put in the hours and things will start to happen on their own.
There is so much talk about e-book these days. How do you prefer to read: actual book, tablet, or screen?
I prefer an actual book and don’t own a tablet. I really don’t have anything against e-reading but have been in love with the physicality of the book since…well, since my grandmother read us the Little Golden Books, back in the day. One aspect of this I don’t hear discussed is that, when you take a real book on a trip, you’re sort of making a commitment. With a tablet, I’d think you’d (I’d) be more inclined to skip around. I read Infinite Jest on a trip to Bhutan, just read Sense and Sensibility on a flight from L.A., and in both there were moments where I had to push through. Which is easier to do, when the safety Instructions are your only alternative.
Your commencement speech at Syracuse University in 2013 went viral. Were you surprised that a speech with such a basic message at its heart—be kind—stirred such a massive response? Why do you think that was?
I felt good about it and, yes, surprised. It was basically something I wrote up pretty quickly the week before, adapted from a grad speech I’d given to our daughter’s middle-school class. I think that might have something to do with its popularity. I wasn’t trying to be rigorous or to prove anything, I was just trying to speak from the heart and say a thing I know to be true but can’t “prove” (that might seem a little corny). Which, in an eight-minute speech, you can get away with. By the time the grads realize you haven’t been rigorous, they are drunk.
Details: The Inside the Actor’s Studio interview will take place from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the Mizel Arts and Culture Center; tickets are $30 for non-members.