A Single Question Interview with George Saunders

S. Tremaine Nelson

I met George Saunders, briefly, at a reading he gave from his short book CONGRATULATIONS, BY THE WAY in 2014, which The New York Times called “as slender as a psalm, and as heavy.” The book captured the commencement address he had given at Syracuse University the previous spring. My friend Chris Russell and I had reserved two seats at 192 Books in Chelsea where George was scheduled to read from his new book. Chris and I, having come from a few pints at the beloved Peter McManus Cafe, were late, and, to our amazement, the curator of the event had saved our seats — RIGHT IN THE FRONT ROW, in full view of everyone in attendance.

Dozens of leonine literary types sat, quietly waiting for the event to start, as Chris and I emerged from the cold and entered the quiet warm bookstore. It was one of those moments where the imaginary record player scratched to a halt, everyone looked at us, as we awkwardly took our seats in the very front row, no less than three feet from George, who eyed us with obvious amusement, as he settled in to begin the event.

After the reading, George stayed and signed books, shared stories, and chatted with old friends in the bookstore — readily affirming his own reputation for generosity, humor, and warmth. When my turn finally came to meet him, I apologized for making such a noisy entrance to his reading, shook his hand, and I told him how much I had loved his legendary story “Escape from Spiderhead,” which Deb Treisman had published during my time reading slush in the Fiction Department at The New Yorker in the winter of 2010. I remember reading the story in the old TNY office on the twentieth floor of 4 Times Square and feeling my sense of amazement, later, when I reread the story in the printed issue of the magazine.

Fast-forward twelve years later, and I reached out to George via email, hoping he might share some wisdom with us. I told him I had taken over as editor and publisher of Northwest Review, where he had first published his fiction back in 1986, as a part of his application to the Syracuse graduate writing program, then run by Tobias Wolff. In response to my note, George wrote a single line, in reference to his old work in Northwest Review: “That early publication meant the world to me.”

What is the one book you’d require every incoming American first year college student to read and why?
This may seem like a strange choice, but I’d pick “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” by Leo Tolstoy. First, it is a masterpiece of craft — a whole life condensed radically down to its essenceso this would be a great instruction on what a work of fiction is (and is not). Second, it leads the reader to the big questions, about what it means to die and what it means to live. It is also mind-blowing and has the potential to change a life and put a person on a new and more truthful path. Plus, it’s short. :)

George Saunders is the author of eleven books, including the novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the Man Booker Prize, and the story collections Pastoralia and Tenth of December, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. He has received fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 2006 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. In 2013 he was awarded the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and was included in Time’s list of the one hundred most influential people in the world. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University. George’s debut short story A Lack of Order in the Floating Room was published in the Winter 1986 issue of Northwest Review.