Dialogs: How Chicagoans and Russians Write—CHF’s Chat with Author George Saunders

Oak Forest native to the “political left of Gandhi,” essayist and award-winning author George Saunders returned to Chicagoland to talk about writing with Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me host Peter Sagal. “The Art of the Short Story” hour-long discussion was held in front of a full, lively crowd at the University of Chicago’s David Rubenstein Forum as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival’s Fall 2022 “Public” series.

Called Time magazine’s best English short-story writer by fellow author and Syracuse University professor Mary Karr in 2013, Saunders brought his characteristic humor, humility and niceness to the chat (check out his noted commencement address about the inevitability of kindness). He talked about his childhood as a “lovable but arrogant kid,” who played guitar, listened to Yes, the Allman Brothers, Dan Fogelberg, and made deliveries for his dad’s chicken restaurants. He was a “freaky kid with a mullet” who also read Ayn Rand, but had no youthful aspirations as a writer himself, although he often marked humor in the world.  Saunders saw the movie Jaws seven times and enjoyed the heightened emotional reactions, as well as watching fellow patrons on subsequent showings. Once, an old man and a pregnant woman were sitting nearby, and he remembered thinking, “we’re going to gain one or lose one.” 

GeorgeSaundersBooks.com

As a teenager, Saunders didn’t read a lot of literature, but his English teacher encouraged his humor, rewarding the speed and vigilance of his classroom quips. He concurred with author Junot Diaz, who said “language is power.” After high school, he first attended Chicago Heights’ Prairie State College, then, in 1976, he transferred to the Colorado School of Mines to study geology. The program was tough, and he remembered the admonition: “look to your left, look to your right, you’re all gonna flunk.” But, as a reward for his studying, he let himself read Hemingway (still his favorite), Steinbeck and other novelists, after which he felt alive and competent. But “it didn’t occur to me to follow my strengths,” he said.

He did follow his desire to travel like Hemingway, and spent time in Sumatra. On his return to the States, he started writing in his aunt’s basement and reading stories at the Chicago Public Library by authors like Stuart Dybek. Saunders felt remiss for waiting so long to read contemporary literature, but he finally followed his bliss to study under Tobias Wolff at Syracuse.

Saunders’ mom gave him Tolstoy, and he delved into the Russian literary canon as he created a course to teach at Syracuse. “Reading was my self-help and self-instruction,” he said. “But if I can understand it, it’s must not be literature.” He wrote about writing the Russian way in his book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. Yet he was still struggling to produce his own work. His Mexican wedding manuscript bombed, but during a meeting he started scrawling “scatological Seussian poems.” His writer wife laughed at them, so he had found his entrée. “Don’t be afraid to entertain,” he learned, and his first published essay was “The Wavemaker Falters.” 

Sagal asked Saunders about his writing process, which he replied was thousands of micro choices on a positive or negative meter, spending countless hours polishing every sentence of his prose. “But when do you stop?” Sagal asked. Saunders replied that his editing habit is like laying carpet down and slowly smoothing out the bumps. He also referenced an Einstein quote: “no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” 

With characters, “I start out vaguely making fun of someone,” Saunders said. But to get out of that stasis, he adds sympathetic traits to compound the complications. He likens his explorations to attending a fun house with his readers. “Your facile, judging mind is shut off in a functional short story,” he added. 

When asked, “Are you a dark writer?” Saunders replied “I make big, morbid messes for my characters to start, which might be a Chicago thing.” In mid-2016, he pondered “Who are all these Trump supporters?” and now he wistfully remembers that “none of us knew what we had, we just gave it away.” He’s tired of false hope, but he also said that he feels like a roller coaster designer, wanting to share narratives that make life more thrilling. 

Sagal and Saunders then entertained a few audience questions. When asked about his construction techniques, Saunders said that plot and theme are just placeholders, and that nailing the voice makes the story. He’s a fan of interior monologues. He also discussed the innovative and record-breaking use of 166 voices (including himself, his family, his teachers and a slew of celebrities like Nick Offerman) to record his Lincoln in the Bardo audiobook at 30 studios in 11 cities. 

Saunders was commended for his weekly blog, Story Club, and was asked “what drives you to write?” He responded, “1. Ego 2. Power 3. To do something beautiful.” He starts with a garble of words, then when he revises, “the face comes out of the stone.” Things that he hasn’t predicted emerge, and that thrill of the chase is addictive. When asked how he organizes his own library, he said, “ I don’t. I buy new copies if I can’t find a book.” 

To summarize his life in literature, Saunders recalled Steve Martin in the movie The Jerk, when his character asks his love interest, played by Bernadette Peters, if he could watch her and her current boyfriend make love, saying “I’d just be happy to be in there somewhere.”

Check out upcoming Chicago Humanities Festival programs this fall, including:

Screening of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid with live musical accompaniment on 11/5

Series of conversations and an after party: The Verge & Bit Bash, how big tech impacts our world, on 11/12

Forum on Chicago’s Public Spaces on 11/29

Did you enjoy this post and our coverage of Chicago’s arts scene? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation by PayPal. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!

Karin McKie
Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.

Plan Your Life with 3CR Highlights

Join Our Newsletter today!