Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Unconventional Inspiration: An Interview with George Saunders

On Tuesday, November 16, nationally acclaimed author George Saunders visited Chester College of New England as part of the Visiting Writers Series. Saunders, who has been hailed by The New Yorker as one of the best writers under forty and as one of the top 100 most creative people in entertainment by Entertainment Weekly, gave a question and answer period for students during the day and a reading, that was open to the public, the same evening.

In a time when many writers lament that the art of the short story has passed by, Saunders has published three collections of short stories and two novellas. His stories and essays also are routinely published in magazines such as The New Yorker, GQ, and Harpers. "Do I think short stories are dead? No," he said. "I think people get this idea from bad agents. A bad agent will ask you if you have a novel finished. A good agent wants to know what you write. I've been lucky. One of the things we don't tell young writers, that we should, is that you can't pick what kind of writer you are."

Saunders said he spent his youth reading "less than literary" books and does not count other writers among his top inspirations. When just beginning his career as a writer he studied albums, in particular how musicians ordered the songs on an album, to learn how to put together books of short stories. Other influences? Comedians of course. Saunders said he counts Steve Martin and Monty Python as strong influences on his writing.

Saunders is known for his genre-defying short stories and has a writing process that is in many ways as unconventional as his work. Often spending as many as seven years writing and revising a story, he said that by the end of the process he has only kept about 40 percent of the words he started off with. "Many young writers write a story, revise it, and three weeks later feel it's finished," he said. "I write magazine stories. I need to let a story sit long enough so that when I come back to revise it I'm looking at it just like the reader who flips through a magazine and comes across it for the first time."

Each fall Saunders teaches an advanced fiction writing class in the MFA program at Syracuse University, but workshops are definitely not part of his own revision process. He explained that workshops are good tools for students but not for the seasoned writer. "The problem with workshops is that you get, say, five suggestions. Four of them, you feel, have nothing to do with your story. The fifth one does maybe, but only if it is something you were already thinking of yourself.

"Ultimately you send a story out with your name on it," he continued. "It should be your work. Then if it succeeds you deserve all the credit for it. And if it fails you don't have the feeling that you've been misled."

~Renee Mallett

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