George Saunders

In the spring of 2008, I stood alone in a mostly empty hallway at Franklin High School, laughing out loud. There were a few people around, coming and going. They looked at me, as they came and went, in exactly the way you would expect someone to look at someone who was standing alone in a mostly empty hallway and laughing out loud.

 

I didn’t notice, though, or didn’t care. I was reading George Saunders’s 2000 story collection, Pastoralia, specifically the title story Pastoralia.

 

I was a teacher at Franklin High, just finishing my second year. I didn’t normally stand alone in mostly-empty hallways, reading. I had a classroom. But it was state testing time, and I was a rover.

 

Last week, I finished my tenth year at Franklin (of eleven years as a full-time teacher, one of those years spent elsewhere). Also last week, I read George Saunders’s first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, released earlier this year.

 

Though I’m not sure of the exact timeline, it wasn’t too long after reading Pastoralia and laughing out loud in the hallway in 2008, maybe even that same afternoon, that I started writing what would eventually become my MFA thesis and later my first (and so far, only) published novel, Parnucklian for Chocolate.

 

Those first-produced pages, though not nearly as good as Pastoralia, represented an attempt to emulate the unnamed qualities of Pastoralia that had made me laugh out loud in a mostly-empty hallway—to “sound” like Pastoralia, and to “sound” like Saunders.

 

The following paragraph—one of the first I wrote of Parnucklian—is an example of a paragraph that, though not as good as Saunders, attempts to sound like Saunders:

 

“The planet Parnuckle,” Josiah’s mother would often continue, “which is the home planet of your father, and therefore is your home as well, will always be your home, even though you have never been there, and possibly never will, but it will always be there as your home, because it is the home of your father, just like this home, which is my home, and also your home, is also your home, even if you grow up and move far away, as long as you live, or unless I move to another home, but then that home will also be your home. Your father, on the other hand, will never leave Parnuckle, so that will not be an issue. Of course, that’s not quite fair, as it’s comparing a house on a planet to a planet. I, likewise, will never leave this planet, nor will this house, or any house I may be living in, either in the future or whenever.”

 

Five springs later, at the 2013 AWP Conference in Boston, the week of Parnucklian’s release, I told George Saunders, who had happened to sit down at the same otherwise-empty common area table as me, first politely asking my permission—I, staring up at George Saunders, initially unable to respond, eventually doing so in eighth-grade-girl-meets-lead-singer-of-favorite-band fashion—in the first of two conversations I have had with George Saunders (one digital, one not; description of latter commencing, former forthcoming—said conversation being one that George Saunders probably immediately forgot but that for me has become a commonly repeated anecdote) that (predicate of current sentence now proceeding) when I had written early drafts of just-released-novel-I-was-there-in-Boston-to-promote I had been reading a lot of his work, specifically Pastoralia, and that, at least in the early drafts, I had tried to “sound” like him, specifically like Pastoralia.

 

He had responded that that was fine.

 

Reading Pastoralia in 2008 had not been my first encounter with Saunders’s work. In 2000, while at Cal Poly, I took a fiction writing course that, for a few reasons, would be fairly influential in regards to my later becoming a creative writing grad-student and fiction writer, one of those reasons being exposure to writers of literary fiction the likes to which I had never been exposed before—had never before read literary fiction, in fact before taking this class had never even heard of literary fiction—such as TC Boyle, Lorrie Moore, and the recently-departed Denis Johnson. And also George Saunders. Of the first three, our instructor assigned books—If the River was Whiskey, Self-help, and Jesus’ Son, respectively—but of Saunders the instructor gave us Xeroxed copies of The Barber’s Unhappiness. I’d never read anything like it. I immediately wrote a terrible now-lost story that tried to copy it (around that same time, I also wrote a lot of terrible now-lost stories that tried to copy the stories in Jesus’ Son).

 

Half-a-dozen years later, I stumbled across another Saunders story: Sticks. The story would later be collected in his 2013 book, The Tenth of December, but back then the story was just on his website, which looked exactly the way websites used to look in the mid-aughts.

 

By then I had started teaching. I copied the story into a Word document. Back then, I used to spend my lunch break eating cheeseburgers and sort-of-frantically searching for something to do with the next two classes. That day, I used Sticks, and over the next eleven years I would use the story in a variety of different lessons. It was perfect for it: short (just two paragraphs) but meaty.

 

In 2013, at AWP, after the awkward silence that had followed George Saunders telling me that it was fine that at least in early drafts of my recently-released-novel-I-was-there-to-promote I had tried to “sound” like him, I told George Saunders that it had been nice to see that Sticks had been included in the new book. I then proceeded, in a sort of confession, to tell George Saunders that over the previous seven years I had without permission or payment made hundreds and hundreds of copies of his story Sticks and had distributed the story to hundreds and hundreds of teenagers for use in a variety of different lessons, it being a perfect fit for such: so short but so meaty.

 

He, who is every bit as nice as everyone says he is, responded that that was fine.

 

In fact, he wrote his email address in my AWP program and told me to have students email him if they had any questions about the story.

 

In 2015, when my wife, who is also a teacher and whom I met at Franklin High and who over the past decade has also used Sticks in a variety of different lessons, and I spent three months co-authoring a book on teaching literature in high school, we included a lesson on Sticks (this time paying for permission).

 

Before the book’s publication, our editor had instructed us to seek out blurbs and a foreword.

 

We sent emails to a lot of education-y people. But we also thought: why not email the famous living authors of stories we had referenced in the book. So we emailed Junot Díaz and George Saunders. We wrote what we considered to be a professional but folksy message with plenty of flattery aimed at the recipient.

 

Junot Díaz did not respond. But George Saunders did.

 

He said that he couldn’t tell us how much he appreciated us teaching Sticks. He said that he wished he could be more helpful, but he didn’t have time to write a foreword or a blurb. He said that he was writing like mad.

 

I replied by thanking him for his response. And I said that as one of his devoted readers, I was looking forward to whatever it was that he was working on.

 

He was working on Lincoln in the Bardo, which I read last week, in three days (I don’t normally read books in three days—more like three months; in fact, I hadn’t yet read the book, which Liz had bought me for Valentine’s Day, because it took me all those months to finish reading John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor).

 

Lincoln in the Bardo is fabulous. It’s different—definitely a bit weird—but good. You should read it. Sometimes, it’s very, very sad. But at other times it’s very funny. It may even make you laugh out loud.

Blog Tour, Yo.

My good friend Natalia Trevino, author of the poetry collection Lavanda La Dirty Laundry, was nice enough to invite me to participate in the following blog tour, in which I answer the following four questions, which I’ve answered in pairs.  Thanks, Natalia.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS–THE WRITING PROCESS–BLOG TOUR OF WRITERS, 2014

Question Number One: What are you working on? and Question Number Four: How does your writing process work?

Just yesterday I finished the first draft of a short story.  It’s called The Anti-Story, and it’s kind of a long short story (46 pages; 11,500 words).  I just googled How long is a novella? and apparently a novella is like 20,000 to 50,000 words, so this is just a long short story.  Maybe too long.  It’s about a guy named JW who discovers that another writer has written and had published the anti-story to his own story.  It begins like this:

When JW opened his just-arrived copy of the review, inside which were published the winners and runners-up of the contest to which JW had submitted his own story and thus, as a condition of his entry fee, had received a copy, JW found that the winning story was not his own story, but rather the anti-story of his story.

If you’re wondering what an anti-story is, here’s JW trying to answer that very question in a conversation with a friend:

“The winner wrote the anti-story to my story.  To the story I submitted.”

“The anti-story?”

“Yes.”

“What does that mean?”

 “You know.  It’s like…it’s the anti-story.  To my story.”

  “But what does that mean?”

  “It’s like…it’s like this guy’s story…it’s everything that mine isn’t.”

  “Like so much better?”

  “No.  It’s not that it’s so much better.  Maybe it is.  It’s just…not mine.  In every way.”

  “Oh my God.”

  “Right?”

After submitting the final manuscript of my novel, Parnucklian for Chocolate, to Red Hen in the spring of 2012, I didn’t write much at all for quite a while, maybe a year.  There was just so much to do.  I work full time, teaching high school English, and in September of 2012 our first child was born, a little maniac named Thomas.  Plus book promotion and all that, so no writing.

But several months ago I managed to get back into a routine, and in doing so, I have been able to complete a draft of a play and the story mentioned above.  I get up at 5AM, put on the coffee, shower and dress, then sit down and write.  I do this Monday through Friday, usually only writing for 15 to 20 minutes (sometimes just 5 to 10 minutes) before I need to feed the cats and start on lunches and so forth.  Then the rat race takes off and twenty-four hours later I do it again.

Even though this isn’t much time, I’m usually able to get out at least a page of fiction (5-6 pages of dialogue, when working on the play), which by the end of the week adds up nicely.

I do all of this writing by hand, in those little 70 sheet one-subject notebooks that come in assorted colors and that you can get at Target during Back to School for seventeen cents apiece, and on Saturdays I type it all up.  I’m a terribly slow typist, but this is my first edit.  On Sunday mornings, I try to submit stuff.  Lately I’ve been sending out flash pieces that I’ve written the past couple of years, one of those, titled “A Choice,” having recently been accepted by The Los Angeles Review for their fall issue.

So that’s my routine.  Once I have a typed draft of something, my first reader is my lovely and brilliant wife, Liz, who gives me lots of notes and lots to think about.

The play I mentioned is titled Before We Were What We Are Now.  It’s not all that great, but I’d never written a play before, or tried to write a play, but I read a lot of plays and I love dialogue and it was a lot of fun.

Question Number Two: How does your work differ from others in its genre? and Question Number Three: Why do you write what you do?

I guess my genre is literary fiction.  So one way my work differs from others in that genre is that other works are a lot better than my works.

Beyond that, I’d say that my writing leans toward the postmodern, which doesn’t really make it different but maybe helps to categorize it.  Though I wouldn’t necessarily say this about my novel.  I was told by my editor that my novel is naturalist, which sounds alright.

I’d say what makes my novel unique but not entirely unique is the style, which has been compared, in reviews, to Vonnegut (which I was actually maybe kind of going for and which makes me blush) and to Gertrude Stein.  I write often quite long, perhaps challenging to read, sentences in what Stanley Fish would call the subordinating style, though challenging to read is not what I’m going for.  Fun to read is what I’m going for; the sentences are fun to write.  Here’s an example, from Parnucklian for Chocolate:

The miniature golf game began with Johnson Davis announcing that they would be playing “Boys against Girls!” and then demanding that both Josiah and Bree, as the representatives of their teams and in order to determine which team would go first, engage in a match, best two out of three, of Rock-Paper-Scissors, which Josiah had never actually played before, though he had seen other boys, such as Joey Simms and Eli Koslowski at the group home, play Rock-Paper-Scissors, usually at the start of a game of kickball or basketball, all of which Johnson Davis learned upon asking Josiah before the match with Bree began if he had ever played Rock-Paper-Scissors, leading Johnson Davis to provide Josiah with a short tutorial which included a basic outline of the rules and a brief history of the game’s genesis and a slightly less brief discussion of the irony of the fact that though Rock-Paper-Scissors is itself a game it is often used, as the current situation shows by example, in the facilitation of other games, and a practical demonstration of the proper hand movements and positions required, at the end of which Johnson Davis took Josiah aside, placing a hand upon his shoulder, and whispered into his ear that a strategy that had served him well over the years was choosing the same object—either rock, paper, or scissors, it doesn’t matter, any of the three would do—in all three turns, turning traditional strategy on its head and thereby often confusing the opponent, a strategy that proved unsuccessful in Josiah’s match against Bree, Josiah choosing scissors in each turn, given that Bree, as a member of the family of Johnson Davis, had had extensive practice in the playing of Rock-Paper-Scissors, Rock-Paper-Scissors having been used throughout Bree’s childhood not only to determine order of competition but as a mediator in nearly all decisions, thus Bree had equally extensive exposure to the favored strategy of Johnson Davis and easily defeated Josiah with a volley of rocks.

 

This can be tiring to a reader, so I try to counteract this prose style with my dialogue.  I tend to write short, minimalist maybe, Hemingway-y or Carver-y dialogue.  I guess those are the two chief features of my style: convoluted, subordinating prose and minimalist dialogue.  That plus just not being good enough.

What I meant earlier in saying that my work leans toward the postmodern is that I seem to naturally gravitate toward metafiction.  Parnucklian for Chocolate contains no metafiction, but the story I’ve been working on, The Anti-Story, includes a lot of it, and when I started writing short stories, as an undergrad taking creative writing courses, they were all metafictive.  Borges says that “every writer creates his own precursors”.  I certainly don’t think that I created my own precursors, but I find it interesting that I discovered my influences after already being influenced, which is sort of what Borges is talking about there.  Writing bad metafiction as an undergrad without knowing what metafiction was led to comments from professors like bla bla postmodernism bla bla John Barth Metafiction which led me of course to John Barth, who I went mad for, and Vonnegut, who, you know, is awesome and all.

So there. Thanks for reading this.