Much has been written about the writer George Saunders. He was short-listed for this years’ National Book Award (but didn’t win). The New York Times picked his most recent story collection, Tenth of December, as one if its 10 Best Books of 2013. The Times also published a long magazine piece, at the beginning of the year, predicting that his book would be the best book you’ll read all year. The 2013 Commencement address that he gave at Syracuse University went viral.
And just a few days ago, The New Yorker posted a short video of him, shot mostly in and around his office at Syracuse, where he teaches.
I can’t add much to the video, except that it shows him as I knew him to be, almost twenty years ago when he gave a reading at a small bookstore my future wife and I were working at in Rochester, NY. This was right around the time his first collection came out, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. It was wintertime, and there were about twenty people in the place. The body heat of all those souls, plus the steam from the espresso machine, made the windows fog up. I remember him telling a story about how he used to write at work, using alt/tab to switch between screens when his bosses came around. Afterwards, he signed a copy of his book to my wife, which she still has. He was funny, unassuming, wise.
After he published Tenth of December, I wrote to him. I thanked him for his work all these years, and I shared a Buddhist teaching with him, about always keeping a “don’t know” mind in order to stay open to the world. Open til it hurts, even.
And he wrote back. And remembered that evening. And thanked me for the quote.
It makes me glad to know that now he’s treading the same paths that I used to tread, in my hometown of Syracuse, and teaches at a school that I (briefly) attended. Syracuse might be the rust belt, a city where it seems to snow about 200 days out of the year, but its literary light shine brightly through the darkness. Think of the greats who have passed through, who are gone, who are still there: Raymond Carver, Hayden Carruth, Tobias Wolff, Douglas Unger, Jay McInerney, Stephen Dobyns, David Foster Wallace, Alice Sebold, Mary Karr.
And now, George. In the video, Syracuse almost appears as romantic and mystical as George makes it sound. Almost.
PS…Speaking of DFW, Infinite Jest was written in Syracuse, mostly in pencil, on yellow legal pads, in the basement apartment of this house:
(Photo credit: Me. Based on the Times magazine story, I found the house while I was home visiting my parents for Christmas break. George and I concur: There oughta be a plaque.)