Living in a Material World: A Conversation with George Saunders and David Lipsky

1. David Lipsky and his Macbook, trying to find something bad to say about Saunders. Conclusion: impossible. 2. George Saunders: he do the police in different voices.

On Thursday, I went to the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House around six-thirty and met my friend Useless MacNastus. Most evening readings start at seven, so we figured half an hour was early enough to guarantee ass and back support while listening to George Saunders. We figured wrong. The nineteenth-century townhouse was clogged with people, including a girl hunched beside a garbage can like a dispossessed Oscar the Grouch. The more fortunate fought for seats that faced a mirror. Pressed against a wall in the muggy main room, Useless said, “The moustache quotient is off the charts here.” “Everyone looks like George Saunders,” I said, then George Saunders inched by us. He made eye contact and said “Ehhhhhhhh,” which is the sound you make when two sweaty doofuses are watching you squeeze through a crowd.

1. Saunders and Lipsky, fielding questions and giving answers. 2. My buddy Useless, dressed like a Bible salesman, and Marie Anderson, a writer from Montana.

David Lipsky, author of Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself (and plenty more), began the evening with an effusive and personal introduction. He offered a brief bio of Saunders (who worked on an oil exploration crew before getting an MFA) and discussed the role that work and corporate jargon plays in Saunders’s stories. One of his contributions, says Lipsky, is the recognition that we become our jobs. In an attempt to find negative criticism on Saunders, Lipsky pulled up Twitter on his Macbook, but found only hits like this: “Thank you, God: there is a new George Saunders collection.” Which is probably how the whole room felt when they found out.

Saunders went to the podium next. He’s soft-spoken and hilarious, mildly self-deprecating, but sincere about literature. “Everything David said is true,” he began before reading an excerpt from “Victory Lap,” which will be in his upcoming collection, Tenth of December (Random House 2013). The story presents the mental lives of a daydreaming teenage girl and her neurotic schoolmate, and Saunders complemented his characteristic humor with a lively reading that featured different voices for each character (and the other voices in their heads). When the threat of violence suddenly entered the story, the audience’s laughter ceased and the room grew uneasy. “I’ll stop there,” he said, when everyone was silent, “so that you’ll all go out and buy nine copies of the book.”

1. Kaela, assistant editor at Random House, and her friend Alyx. Behind them: Two guys wondering what I’m doing and an intense picture of Junot Diaz. 2. All in the literary family. Joshua, teacher; Anthony Tognazzini, fiction writer; Alex, George Saunders impersonator; Robin Beth Schaer, poet; and Victoria Cho, writer, whose face I cut off.

A conversation with David Lipsky followed. Lipsky asked Saunders about his past as a geophysical engineer and his first attempts at writing. Saunders talked about humor as coping mechanism, a “way not to suck,” and as a place of surprising communication between the writer and reader. He admitted his own doubts as a young writer (“Is it possible that the world doesn’t give a shit whether I become a writer?”) while assuring his audience of aspiring young writers that their craft is noble. During the Q&A, Saunders responded with the patience and care of a teacher. Did I mention he’s also painfully funny?

The reading felt both personal and instructive, perhaps because Lillian Vernon is a converted home, but more likely because Saunders was welcoming and warm. He stayed after the reading to sign books and chat, but I left with Useless. I was too afraid of saying something stupid to talk to him.

***

— Sam Gold is full of hate and hate, solid as stone.

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