Saturday, January 26, 2013

Failure Was Possible: About George Saunders

There's been a lot of buzz about George Saunders lately. Glowing reviews of his latest collection, Tenth of December, which has cracked the best-seller lists; an amazing cover profile of the man in the New York Times Magazine featuring the title "George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You'll Read This Year"; and he was even on cable news shows... talking about books! Talking about short stories!

It's wonderful to see such acclaim and notoriety for Saunders -- not only because he's been one of my favorite writers for several years, but also because he seems like, well, just about the nicest guy on the planet.

I don't remember the first Saunders story I ever read. It might have been the raccoon disposal one ("The 400-Pound CEO"); it might have been the Civil War theme park one ("CivilWarLand in Bad Decline"; or it might have been "Offloading Mrs. Schwartz."

I do remember that I first heard of Saunders when David Foster Wallace name-checked him in an interview. That was good enough for me. And I've been a mighty fan of Saunders ever since.

In conjunction with an e-book release of his first book (CivilWarLand in Bad Decline), he's written a new preface. He discusses how he came to write the stories collected in the book, and what was happening in his life at the time. As a Saunders enthusiast, it makes for great reading. But it also wonderfully distills the struggles of writing and finding one's voice, as well as balancing the joys and challenges of family life with trying to start a writing career.

Some choice quotes from the essay...


"I had graduated from the Syracuse MFA program in 1988 and had been writing stories that owed everything to Ernest Hemingway and suffered for that. They were stern and minimal and tragic and had nothing to do whatsoever with the life I was living or, for that matter, any life I had ever lived."

"We didn’t have any money and were into our thirties and were (maybe, just a little) wondering how it was that we’d missed the boat in terms of this thing called upward mobility...

"At one point our second car broke and we couldn’t afford to replace it, so I started riding my bike the seven miles to and from work, along the Erie Canal. As winter approached, Paula put together an ad hoc winterproofing ensemble for me: a set of lab goggles, a rain poncho, some high rubber boots that, as I remember, had little spacemen on them. Biking along the canal I’d be composing in my head, and might arrive at work with a sentence or two all worked out. Then I’d dash through the atrium, into the men’s room, and try to get myself cleaned up, while not forgetting those sentences. Ah, those were the days.

"But seriously: those were the days.

"Biking back into town after dark, past the cozy colonial houses orange with firelight, I’d think: I have a home. I have people waiting for me, who love me. This is it. This is my life. These are the best years of my life."


"We managed to buy a house. It was small but sweet, and the four of us lived there, happily. What a thing it was, to suddenly have a real life happening to us, to be in over our heads but glad about it. The gratitude I was feeling nudged me to the edge of a thought precipice: Had others, loving this much, had it go wrong? Did that ever happen?... The realization that failure was possible, even for me, had the effect of increasing my empathy."


"Mostly I was using whatever story I happened to have going at the time to get me through the day and give me some minimal sense of control and mastery. They were a secret source of sustenance. If I got a few good lines in the morning, that made the whole rest of the day better."


"I will forevermore, I expect, be trying to re-create the purity of that time. Having done nothing, I had nothing to lose. Having made a happy life without having achieved anything at all artistically, I found that any artistic achievement was a bonus. Having finally conceded that I wasn’t a prodigy after all, I had the total artistic freedom that is afforded only to the beginner, the doofus, the aspirant."

Better yet, you can read the entire preface here.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

That Way of Looking

"It's akin to style, what I'm talking about, but it isn't style alone. It is the writer's particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent. There's plenty of that around. But a writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for a time."

--Raymond Carver, On Writing