Saturday, March 18, 2017

George Saunders at Waterstones

I think I first came across George Saunders, the American short story writer, in the late 1990s. Whenever I'd be reading an anthology of American fiction, or a special fiction edition of the New Yorker or whatever, it would be his story that would stand out. He was quite an obscure name at the time, though would become less so in the UK, via a column he wrote for the Guardian in the 2000s. I call him a short story writer, but some of them are pretty long, and some are "novellas", and now, in his late fifties (somehow I never really thought about whether he was older or younger than me), his first novel, a book in 166 voices "Lincoln in the Bardo."

He came to Waterstones in Manchester last night and there must have been close to 120 people in the audience - an impressive number for an hitherto obscure writer. His books before the new one were hard to find, but when his last collection "Tenth of December" won the Folio prize, he obviously became better known. Like a band that's been going for years, he's picked up fans along the way, and I guess the numbers shouldn't have been a surprise. (The equally brilliant Ben Marcus had around a quarter of this crowd a couple of years back - American fiction doesn't always travel.).

It's fair to say he's having a moment. He read from the new book, or rather, a group of readers from Waterstones and the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester, read from the new book. Because its a book in many voices - the ghosts in the mausoleum where Abraham Lincoln's young son lay dead, whilst the American civil war raged on around him - this, which he's repeated in every city of his book tour, was a powerful and inclusive way of introducing the novel. Saunders is a well regarded creative writing tutor at his alma mater, Syracuse, where he studied under Tobias Wolff in the mid-1980s. A brilliant essay in the Guardian recently unpicked his approach to writing - don't lose the magic; try and turn the dial to make the work better, not worse; most of all, empathy - and he revisited a couple of these points in the Q&A with the university's Dr. Kaye Mitchell.

He's a very open and funny speaker, and like alot of American writers, appeared relaxed and colloquial. I hadn't realised he'd come from a blue collar background or that his first degree had been a science degree or that he'd had a fallow period following his MFA whilst he tried to be a Carver-esque dirty realist, and as he says, "lost the magic." Talking about the new novel's long gestation and experimental style he felt that the latter was dictated by the subject - something I've always thought necessary. The crowd, with an above average number of beards and Americans, (there's an essay to be written on readers coming to look like the writers they like!) asked some illuminating questions as well including one about Audiobooks (surely a sign of the times?). The audiobook of "Lincoln in the Bardo" seems a thing of wonder - 166 different voices including a number of famous names, like Ben Stiller, and Jeff Tweedy from Wilco -  The sense of this being a visit from American literary royalty briefly surfaced at this point - though his disarming manner, and the charm with which he invited co-readers along to share the spotlight, was distinctly humble.

I need to go back to his short stories - and find time to devour the new novel. After a tiring week, and having missed another of my favourite writers, Gwendoline Riley, the night before, because I was at the Whitworth for an art opening, I'm glad I made the effort, bumping into a number of Manchester writers and literary types along the way as we scurried through the rain (sorry, George, we had to live up to the cliche) to find a bar away from the St. Patrick's day crowd. 

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