You’ve read them, you’ve studied them, and finally you get to meet them in person. The thrill of meeting a famous writer in person can really go either way: total disappointment or complete exhilaration. When that writer is hilarious, you just hope, just maybe, that he’s funny in person, too. Well, in this case, turns out he is!
Fresh on the heels of his tremendous success, Tenth of December, George Saunders has a new book out that captures a now-infamous graduation convocation speech he gave at Syracuse in which he preached the virtues of kindness. I happened to be in New York for work last night, and a week before that, I happened to be staring mindlessly at Twitter when @192Books tweeted the following little nugget: “Call now to meet George Saunders and hear him read!!”
Much has been said about the disappearance of quality indie bookstores in Manhattan. 192 Books is awesome. Inclined towards high art and literary fiction, it’s mostly an intimate event space (couldn’t be more than 250 square feet in the entire store) for author events. So it was that last night I got to hear George Saunders read and crack wise with the crowd of 20-30 guests, including myself and psychotropic visual artist Chris Russell, a good friend and fellow Attemptor. While George read, this is what Chris drew (in the span of approximately seven minutes):
Seven minutes! The man is insane. Here’s a link to some of his art. After reading one of his stories from Tenth of December, Saunders answered questions in which the following interesting literary nuggets appeared:
- One guests asked GS what people wrote in his yearbook. He admitted that he was his high school’s Prom King, but that this meant permanent social ignominy and in all likelihood the only signature was from his mom, saying, “You’re the best!”
- Before allowing questions, he said, “The first person to ask a question usually has the most sexual energy in the room,” and sure enough this totally attractive 45-50 year old literary lady raised her hand, beaming, with a question about GS’s humor. Lovestruck. Awesome.
- In response to “When do you know that a story is finished?” GS described the analogy of painting the floor of a room, only to discover eventually that you were standing in the doorframe, ready to leave, and that only then was the story finished. Brilliant.
- In response to “Who is your reader?” GS said “Me if I hadn’t already read it. Or my wife.”
- He described Deb Treisman, TNY’s fiction editor, rejecting a story of his called “Puppy” in which one character spoke with too stilted a dialect, a working class dialect, and GS took that criticism and cut out many of the malapropisms and was able to place the story elsewhere, feeling the story had improved.
- When asked, “How did you become funny?” GS said, “I got funny from insecurity.”
- When asked, “Are you going to write a novel?” GS explained that when he was 32 and working full time at an engineering firm, he wrote a 700 page novel about a Mexican mushroom factory or something, and when he finished he gave it to his wife who couldn’t get past page 4. He knew then, he said, that the novel was no good, and he scrapped it. Deferred all other requests about novel writing.
When I got the chance to have him sign my copy of Congratulations, By the Way ( his speech to Syrause), I asked him to inscribe it to my wife, who shares this same burden of reading terrible 700 page novels about Mexican mushroom factories. GS talked about the enduring patience of the artist’s family, his spouse, and their importance, and I, too, feel this gratitude. When signing the book, he told me he and his wife would soon be celebrating their 27th wedding anniversary. We literarians don’t properly celebrate accomplishments like this enough. One last thing. Did I mention our awesome seats? We were in the front row! Some random other person sitting behind me actually took a picture, tweeted it, and here it is! The back of my head in dazed admiration.
Cheers to you, George Saunders. And Congratulations, By the Way.