Books

‘Tenth of December’ author George Saunders luxuriates in language

Updated: 2014-01-12T03:07:30Z

By JON NICCUM

Special to The Star

George Saunders remembers the stray moment when he became enamored with language.

“I was in third grade, and somebody gave me the book ‘Johnny Tremain’ by Esther Forbes. There was something about it that was different than the stuff we were getting in school,” says Saunders, who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Oak Forest.

“She was a real stylist. It was almost telegraphic. I remember that being an addictive pleasure. I’d sneak over to the corner and read it. It wasn’t the story because that wasn’t very interesting. But there was something about the sentences. Maybe it’s like your taste in food, and it’s just wired into you.”

Saunders spent the next few weeks thinking in that language, attempting to describe everything around him in the voice Forbes used to chronicle the American Revolution.

Flash forward a few decades, and Saunders has become one of America’s most distinctive literary voices. A master of hyperstylized language. Revolutionary in his own right.

The best-selling author will appear at Unity Temple on the Plaza on Tuesday to discuss his acclaimed new work, “Tenth of December.”

The 10-story collection touches on themes of abuse, free will, illness, drugs, corporations, war, trauma and neglect. It ranges tonally from riotously funny (“My Chivalric Fiasco”) to gut-punchingly sad (“Sticks”), via settings as simple as a small-town’s icy pond (“Tenth of December”) to a high-tech laboratory in a dystopian future (“Escape From Spiderhead”).

The work earned a 2013 National Book Award nomination and has appeared on numerous best of the year lists, including those in Time, People, NPR and Entertainment Weekly, as well as The Star. Most prominently, it warranted the New York Times Magazine cover headline, “The best book you’ll read this year is George Saunders’ ‘Tenth of December.’ ” (Saunders confesses the best book he has read all year is “A People’s Tragedy” by Orlando Figes.)

“I have a weird aversion to language that’s too nondescript,” Saunders says. “So that’s good if you want to be a highly charged stylist, which I do.

“It’s not so good if you occasionally need to write easier things. Like, a lot of what Tolstoy does is with very simple sentences that are not ‘showboaty’ at all. They’re almost invisible. That love for dense language is helpful, and it’s what I have to use. But it also becomes a bit of a millstone.”

He’s finding that out during the myriad readings for “Tenth of December.” Some things simply work better in print.

“Over the years my writing style has changed partly because of doing readings, says Saunders, calling from his home in Oneonta, N.Y. “You go up and read one thing that doesn’t go over, and when you come home you’re looking to write something more verbal.”

He says the story that’s working best at these appearances is “Victory Lap,” the opener about two teens on the opposite ends of the social spectrum who are united by an unwanted guest.

“When I read ‘Victory Lap’ for the first time, I got freaked out because about halfway in the laughs stopped,” the 55-year-old says. “My wife said, ‘Just because they’re not laughing doesn’t mean they’re not paying attention.’ So the next time I read it, I noticed it’s different when people are quiet and riveted than when they are quiet and bored.”

This isn’t the first reading Saunders has performed in Kansas City. He recalls coming to town for his 1996 debut, “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.”

“There were six people in the room,” he says. “Afterward, three of them came up to say, ‘We really enjoyed that. We thought this was for a history book, but we’re glad we came anyway.’ 

“George is funny, but he keeps you off-kilter,” says Rainy Day Books owner Vivien Jennings, who is hosting the event. “You’re not sure what to expect. He can be weird and sometimes scary, but I think he’s just reminding us that life can be that way.”

Jennings says she particularly enjoyed the story “Exhortation” from “Tenth of December.”

“I’ve read a lot of books on management and communicating with staff for improvement, and I smiled while reading (the fictional character) Todd’s memo and decided that I would start using ‘All will be well’ at the end of our staff meetings,” she says.

Engineering a

new career

Saunders’ voyage to perennial best-seller was more circuitous than most. His first professional love was science. In 1981, he graduated with a geophysical engineering degree from Colorado School of Mines. This led to a career as a tech writer for an environmental engineering firm.

It also ushered him to Sumatra, where he worked as a field geophysicist with an oil exploration crew.

Observation became his key skill.

“As a tech writer at a meeting, you weren’t a fly on the wall. You were the wall. I learned a lot about power and oppression,” he says.

Not surprisingly, he rarely encounters a professional writer of fiction with an engineering background.

“There aren’t many. Kurt Vonnegut was one. When I go out and do readings I meet a lot of engineers who want to be writers. They’re encouraged to see it could possibly be done,” he says.

Does he ever miss his previous occupation?

“Never once,” he says. “I wasn’t good at it.”

Saunders currently teaches creative writing at Syracuse University, where he received a Masters of Arts degree in 1988. He winnowed 600 applications for only six slots for his graduate-level class this semester. He raves about the quality of his students and notes their effect on his own work.

“At a certain age, you start to calcify a little bit,” he says. “You have your shtick and your ideas and your rules. Teaching at that level keeps knocking the scale off your tank.”

The campus connection has explicitly affected his compositions. A class encounter led to a story included in 2006’s “In Persuasion Nation.”

“I had assigned a paper on Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ to my freshman class. They weren’t writers. One kid in his essay wrote, ‘Upon perusing this work of literature, I found myself at a distinct tilt.’ I almost gave him an F. Instead, I wrote a story trying to imitate his voice called ‘Jon.’ It’s the voice that’s not quite inarticulate but like a wild swinging door,” he says.

Failures of kindness

In May, the author delivered Syracuse’s convocation speech for its class of 2013. The piece gained a second life on the Internet, where it became widely quoted.

“I hate that graduation speech riff which is, ‘I know better than you’ — because you don’t,” says Saunders, who was awarded a $500,000 “genius grant” from the MacArthur Fellows Program in 2006. “What you have is 55 years. Where are your regrets? What are the things you are secretly happy about?”

The speech is centered on how Saunders treated a new girl who joined his school in seventh grade:

When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” – that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”

Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.

And then — they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing. ... So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Saunders has since been bombarded by “failures of kindness” stories.

“So many people wrote me emails saying exactly that: ‘I had a little girl like the one in your story.’ It made me think that maybe in the list of things we remember, the first time we fall away from ourselves might be memorable. I had this idea of myself as being a little Christ figure. With that girl especially, I could see in real time that I was not living up to my own standards,” he recalls.

Standards are often skewed when it comes to comparing Saunders to other writers.

“The assumption trickles down that artists have this viewpoint we want to ram down your throat,” he says. “I’m not really trying to say anything. Most people assume you have an intention and then you execute. There are some writers like that.

“But for me, I’m trying to not have an intention. I just have a little fragment and start working with it to see where it goes. When I’m done, sometimes I go, ‘Wow, I said that? I didn’t know I thought that.’ 

The author often shares his viewpoints (or non-viewpoints) with a wider audience as a frequent television guest. Highlights include “The Late Show With David Letterman,” “Charlie Rose” and multiple times on “The Colbert Report.” (Stephen Colbert quipped about “Tenth of December,” “It’s about damn time somebody novelized the calendar.”)

Yet his work has never been adapted for the big screen. “Spiderhead” recently got optioned. He also wrote a feature screenplay of “CivilWarLand” for Ben Stiller of which he is quite proud.

“But when people get the checkbooks out, they go, ‘I don’t know. It’s pretty dark,’ ” he says.

“I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t care that much. Ten years ago I really wanted movies to happen. But now with this book doing as well as it has, I’m like, ‘Oh well.’ 

Saunders admits he’s done penning screenplays and has resolved to cut back on all other types of writing to concentrate on short fiction. (Don’t expect a novel any time soon.) Readers can look forward to more brief volumes of his singular mix of humor and darkness.

“If I get nervous, I tell a joke,” he says. “I lost my first girlfriend that way. She said, ‘Whenever we get anywhere emotionally interesting, you make a joke. I think I have to break up with you.’ I was so nervous that I made a joke. Then she broke up with me.”

Saunders adds, “I don’t remember the joke, but I’ll bet it was pretty good.”

Tuesday

George Saunders will read from his works at 7 p.m. at Unity Temple on the Plaza, 707 W. 47th St. Admission is $15, which includes two tickets to the reading and a paperback copy of “Tenth of December.” For more information, go to RainyDayBooks.com.

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