Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Talking to George Saunders is Fun and Awesome

Probably my most ambitious objective with regard to this blog is: putting myself out there not just in blog format but in non-cyber-medium life as well -- away from the relative safety of a computer and said rumination. For example, George Saunders -- I believe I've mentioned my great fondness of his work before -- did a reading last week at Northwestern University. I giddily attended.

Saunders read one of his more recently published short stories, "Victory Lap." I remember it was difficult for me to follow the story's narrative at times when I first encountered it in The New Yorker last October. Happily, Saunders' animated and engaging reading cleared up any uncertainty I wrestled with, hitherto. So yes, in my view the story was vastly improved upon hearing it read aloud, which I gather public readings will have this effect (make written things better). I came away from the reading far more impressed by what Saunders was trying to do. I did come away thinking it might for that reason, then, work even better as a one-act play. In other words, it seems to work so much better as a piece acted out / performed. After seeing an adaptation of Saunders' story "Jon" at The Building Stage in Chicago, late 2008, I can avow that his work is far more adaptable than it might seem at first blush.

I also had a chance to talk to Saunders, beginning with a question I asked during Q&A. I've always been impressed with his quirky, idiomatic style that he pulls off with seeming ease (I intuit from my own experience that it might not be quite so easy as that, but nevertheless), so I wondered, especially after hearing his speaking the various voices he used, if he had an idea of how his characters should speak while he went through the process of writing them.

Kurt Vonnegut used to say he'd talk to himself on the beach, trying new lines out. Edward Albee, if I recall correctly, described in a New Yorker article once that he would formulate his characters' nuances well in advance of putting them on paper, going so far as to seat himself in various locales and imagining their interactions with the real-life people he watched, all ostensibly in an effort to make them more tactile and realized. Saunders, meanwhile, in his typically affable and modest way said that he does not practice his characters voices while he's writing them, which I found surprising because he reads them with such seamlessness. In any event, it was sort of a relief for me, because I've always been someone who writes at best with only the most rudimentary inner-monologue going. I'm usually worried my characters sound stupid, and often they do, but at least I know that it isn't necessarily because I don't practice what they say as I write them.

Anyway, I ended up purchasing a copy of "The Braindead Megaphone" and had Mr. Saunders sign it, and used that as a segue into chatting -- which is fairly surreal, let me tell you. And I mean it was surreal from the standpoint that: "OMG, this is a guy, ya know, that I've admired from afar for as long as reading has mattered to me and here he is, talking, like we humans do!" So that's how it was surreal, but in every other way it was just awesome. As I've said, Saunders is every bit as affable and modest and engaging as people give him credit.

He said some more interesting things, for instance he reiterated a point he made earlier during his introduction, which I thought was poignant and yet in a certain way epitomized his ethical purpose in writing. He said, to paraphrase him (and apologies if I don't get it quite right), that in the process of writing he discovered that he's had to admit to things he never really knew about himself, never really wanted to discover / admit to upon their unearthing. I think he supposed this is true of writing in general, of writers who try to write in general. If he did suppose that, then I can certainly say I agree wholeheartedly. It's a tough, good thing, and maybe that's why Vonnegut was such a miserable old cuss -- he realized from being a writer that he was one.

It was a great day!

1 comment:

  1. I don't know if George Saunders has a lot of fanatical followers, but I'd like to think that you're the only one. That would make the relationship more special.

    This was nice to read.