Genius writer George Saunders greatly influenced by Rochester

05:00 AM, Jul 21, 2013

George Saunders (BASSO CANNARSA/OPALE)/


Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

“You go from Corporate Woods in (Brighton), past six-foot high cattails, to the highway and Kodak Park, which is kind of Willy Wonka withmethylene chloride. You can drive a straight line, six miles, and see all of these different levels of America. Different tastes and pop culture. You drive past malls and pioneer cemeteries next to a car wash.It’s such a funny mix of the American topography. It supercharged my understanding of the American dilemma. Those things are still in my work.”
“Rochester was like the part of Chicago where I grew up. And that rang a bell. ... The crux of it would be that feeling of mild panic one feels, that my inadequacies were going to impact somebody else. I felt like we weren’t quite keeping up with the Joneses. People our age were already owning homes, pulling away. I’d squandered my engineering degree from lack of use, and we’d had a few fiscal meltdowns. Basically, it’s the feeling you have when you live in a capitalistic society and go off the road a little bit. There was also the feeling I was just winging it.”
“But it’s not like you choose who you are. If you’re a musician and you’re writing quiet little accordion ballads, that might be an inferior version of what you want to be. You have to be true to yourself. I decided to stay committed to the craft of it.”

The George Saunders bookshelf

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, 1996. Short stories and a novella, named a New York Times notable book, as well as a finalist for the 1996 PEN/Hemingway Award.
Pastoralia, 2000. More short stories and a novella, named a New York Times notable book.
The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, 2000. A children’s novella with illustrations, and a New York Times bestseller.
The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, 2005. An absurd sci-fi novella.
In Persuasion Nation, 2006. More short stories.
The Braindead Megaphone, 2007. Non-fiction essays.
Tenth of December: Stories, 2013, a New York Times bestseller.

Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson are strolling through the quiet grounds of Genesee Country Village & Museum. Stiller has just bought the rights to CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and he wants to see the inspiration for the short story about a failing theme park. The park is relatively tourist-free at the moment, and only one person recognizes Stiller. As this is 1997, Wilson is still an unknown actor, so no one recognizes him; he stops to get a fake vintage photo taken of himself in a fake Civil War uniform.

And certainly no one recognizes the fellow wandering alongside them, the author of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, George Saunders.

Some 16 years later, Saunders still escapes widespread recognition. But his critically acclaimed short stories have created a second level of notoriety. There he was, this past January, yukking it up with Stephen Colbert on that hippest of absurdist-news platforms, The Colbert Report, after Saunders’ latest collection of stories, Tenth of December, had just been declared by The New York Times magazine “the best book you will read this year.”

And it is only January! We still have 11 months to go! How can Saunders top this? OK, how about this: Three months later, Time magazine names Saunders one of its “100 Most Influential People in the World.”

George Saunders, apparently, is now the most important writer in the English language (at least for this moment). Perhaps this mastery of the keyboard is fueled by his time in Sumatra, living like some kind of 21st century Joseph Conrad, setting off dynamite explosions in the jungle. Or is it informed by his experiences working in a slaughterhouse? Or playing guitar in a blues-rock band? No, Saunders explains, it is this:

You go from Corporate Woods in (Brighton), past six-foot-high cattails, to the highway and Kodak Park, which is kind of Willy Wonka withmethylene chloride. You can drive a straight line, six miles, and see all of these different levels of America. Different tastes and pop culture. You drive past malls and pioneer cemeteries next to a car wash,” he says. “It’s such a funny mix of the American topography. It supercharged my understanding of the American dilemma. Those things are still in my work.”

That’s right. The most-talked about writer of the day discovered his dystopian muse during the seven years he lived in Rochester.

Selling the short story

What has happened to Saunders since the publication of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is not exactly unprecedented. But it is pretty rare. He is a celebrity writer. With the lionization of Tenth of December, Saunders has chatted with actors Claire Danes at the 100 Most Important Persons in the World cocktail party. TV wants him. He’s appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe talk show and chatted with PBS’ Charlie Rose, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes.

To a person, every one of these people has said, ‘We’d love to have more writers on,’ ” Saunders says. “They’re all of a mind that the culture is drifting toward vacuous.”

Who tipped them off, the Kardashians? Whatever it was, these interviewers all have the same take on Saunders. “That the short story is vanishing from culture,” Saunders says. He is there to refute that notion, and they will give him three minutes to do so.

Saunders, who has taught creative writing at Syracuse University for 16 years, is the man for that abbreviated job. He has never published a novel. Aside from his children’s book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, all of Saunders’ books are either novellas or collections of short stories and essays. “Stick,” one of the stories in Tenth of December, is a mere two pages.

He does his job well. The National Magazine Award is the Pulitzer Prize of magazine writers, and Saunders won its award for fiction in 1994, 1996, 2000 and 2004. Many critics agree Saunders has earned every penny of the $500,000 that came with his 2006 “Genius Grant,” more properly known as MacArthur Fellowship Program. His peers — Tobias Wolff, Thomas Pynchon, the late David Foster Wallace — have called Saunders the best of them.

Saunders’ road to semi-fame

Raised mostly in the south Chicago suburbs, but also Texas and New Mexico, there was no sign of literary supremacy in Saunders’ early years. Instead, he studied exploration geophysics at Colorado School of Mines. It didn’t get him in The New Yorker. But it did get him to Sumatra, working with an oil-drilling crew, exploding dynamite deep in the ground. That’s not the geological equivalent of hand-grenade fishing; the explosions produced seismic readings that suggested drill sites.

Sick from swimming in a dirty river, Saunders returned to the United States with a new career in mind. The books he’d been reading to while away the time in Sumatra had inspired him to live the life of a writer.

When I was 25, I had friends in Chicago who let me stay in their attic for a month, writing,” he says.

They were not good stories, just typing. But when I was 26, and it wasn’t just me typing up some things that had happened, and putting a veneer of character on them, I sold three stories,” he says. “Then I had a seven-year drought where I didn’t sell anything.”

Saunders worked as a convenience-store clerk, doorman, roofer and “knuckle puller” — that was the slaughterhouse job — to support what he describes as the Kerouac dream.

Then in 1985, he was accepted into a graduate writing program at Syracuse, launching his career as a paid writer — of technical journals, for a pharmaceutical company in Philadelphia, then the Radian Corp. in Rochester.

Writing things for Kodak, and other industrial clients,” he says. “If you had a spill, there were certain reporting requirements that had to be fulfilled.”

Life in Rochester

He and his wife, Paula, who met in Syracuse, already had one daughter when they moved here in 1989, renting a house on Audubon Street, off Park Avenue. The couple soon had a second daughter. Struggling to keep the family afloat, Saunders taught guitar classes in Webster — “low pay for substandard work” — and turned up at the downtown club Milestones a couple of times to play at an open mic hosted by The Dady Brothers.

I wanted to be good at something, because the writing wasn’t kicking in yet,” he says. “A couple of open-mic nights cleared that up nicely.”

They moved to Pittsford.

After we bought the house I thought, ‘OK, I have a family now, we have a house, we’re doing OK,’ ” Saunders says. “We were taken by surprise by how much work it was to have kids. But I didn’t give up on the literary dream. I pushed it off to one side, and it was fun to have that as a side career. Whatever energy I exerted, I pointed roughly in the direction of writing.”

He had been wasting time writing a novel based on his experiences from a trip to Mexico. “I did try to write about my Sumatra experience,” Saunders says. “It was not that interesting. It came off like re-warmed Joseph Conrad.”

And that’s when Rochester began to kick in. “Rochester,” he says, “was like the part of Chicago where I grew up. And that rang a bell.”

A career planned along the Erie Canal

So what tone, exactly, does the Rochester experience impart on the creative mind?

The crux of it would be that feeling of mild panic one feels, that my inadequacies were going to impact somebody else,” Saunders explains. “I felt like we weren’t quite keeping up with the Joneses. People our age were already owning homes, pulling away. I’d squandered my engineering degree from lack of use, and we’d had a few fiscal meltdowns. Basically, it’s the feeling you have when you live in a capitalistic society and go off the road a little bit. There was also the feeling I was just winging it.”

Saunders’ characters lead more soul-deadening existences. Lives of looping Escherian desperation before, ooops, it’s over. He frequently rode his bike to the Radian office in Brighton, a time when creative thoughts collided with self-doubt. “I do remember riding along the Erie Canal thinking, ‘Wow, writing is harder than I thought,’ ” Saunders says. He rationalized his choices. “I was 31 years old. I thought if I publish one story a year, by the time I’m 41 that’s 10 stories — that could be a book. Good enough!”

The common wisdom in publishing is no one pays attention to short-story writers. “Agents always say, ‘Oh, you’re a short-story writer. Do you have a novel?’ ” Saunders says. “And it’s true, a novel will outsell a collection of stories.

But it’s not like you choose who you are. If you’re a musician and you’re writing quiet little accordion ballads, that might be an inferior version of what you want to be. You have to be true to yourself. I decided to stay committed to the craft of it.”

Making it to the top of the pile

From his hard-won perch atop the slush pile (publishing lingo for manuscripts accumulating in an agent’s office; see “Spevak, Form Rejection Letters”), Saunders dismisses the notion that short stories are doomed to publishing purgatory. “There’s always some story collection that will make it into the mainstream,” he says.

Indeed. That would include David Sedaris. Who is, incidentally, a big Saunders fan. And with CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Saunders made it. Or started to make it. The title piece of the collection is a brilliant piece of absurdist comedy. An Erie Canal lock appears in the very first sentence. Gangs are overrunning the theme park. It ends badly, in a very funny way.

After the book was accepted for publication, I was still working at Radian for the next 1½ years, while it was going through the whole editing process,” Saunders says. “I thought I had made it. I was kind of shocked. I kind of thought if you sold a book, you were set for life. It turns out it was not that much money.

” ‘Making it’ seems to be an ongoing process, in retrospect.”

OK, so now with Tenth of December, Saunders really has made it. “Mom, poor mom, at home in Rochester, scrubbing the shower, trying to cheer herself up via thin, hopeful humming,” he writes in a story called “Escape From Spiderhead.” But direct references to Rochester are few. “It would be easy to succumb to common nostalgic lyricism,” Saunders says.

Instead, he resorts to uncommon satire of the consumer and corporate cultures. While Saunders has never eaten a raccoon on a stick, these stories echo his time here. “Exhortation” takes the form of a lunatic, bizarrely cheerful corporate letter, filled with an underlying dread.

Stiller’s production of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline has not gotten beyond the script re-re-re-writing phase. But now 54, Saunders has moved on. Three years ago, George and Paula — now Nyingma Buddhists — bought a 15-acre farm in Oneida, Madison County, two hours southeast of Syracuse. The daughters, 25 and 22, now have their own lives, the space taken over by yellow Labs.

Faced with attending the “100 Most Important People in the World” party, Saunders and his wife had to shop for appropriate clothes in New York City.

I never had a tuxedo before,” Saunders says. “It was weird and fun. When you get the chance to do these things, there’s sort of an anthropological aspect to it. We met Lena Dunham. She was composed and generous; she seems like she has really beautiful manners.”

The acclaim is welcome. “In general, it makes me feel relaxed and happy, so that can’t hurt,” he admits. “And it gives me more authority as a creative-writing teacher.”

And the idea of pushing his own envelope — promoting his books on Late Show With David Letterman — is professional and personal growth.

Part of your job, especially as you get older, is to let enough tigers into the cage that they’re not sleeping on your feet,” Saunders says. “It’s high-risk, but it could be fun. And it gets you behind the scenes a little bit, so you have an understanding of how it works.”

Finding the bright spot

His own work is unrelentingly bleak, albeit in a lighthearted way. Even The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip has its unsettling moments. Will schmoozing with Claire Danes destroy George Saunders? Perhaps not. Because he has always found a light in that downwardly mobile tunnel to the near future.

I might be making this up after the fact,” he admits. “If you have a book or a story that’s set in a dark place — a failing theme park — you’re not saying that life is that thing. It’s the internal dynamics that tell you what life is all about.”

He suggests Portuguese Fado music, which can be so mournful yet, “you’re looking for that one bright spot.” He suggests The Bible. “Your reaction to can be, ‘Oh man, crucifixion, this is such a bummer.’ “

We could die in horrible, comic ways, or we could grow old, go to bed and die,” Saunders says. “You just want to give off sparks, and sometimes there’s a real cruelty. Even if a story has a downer ending, there are joys along the way.”