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Year of the Short Story

Author of best book of the year reveals how he survived the Colbert Report

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Author George Saunders Courtesy photo
George Saunders Tenth of December book cover January 2014
George Saunders' Tenth of December Courtesy photo
George Saunders author
George Saunders Tenth of December book cover January 2014
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With the myriad of things 2013 was the year of, we might also add the year of the short story, in no small part thanks to author George Saunders. The award-winning writer has been considered one of American’s great short story writers for decades, but the literary fan favorite became a best-selling author and bit of a media darling in 2013 with the publication of his short story collection, Tenth of December.

I recently spoke to Saunders before his visit to Houston for the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series to ask him how he put together a collection that the New York Times Magazine called the best book we would read last year.

CultureMap: While your previous books have certainly been successes, the publication of Tenth of December made 2013 a particularly good year for you.

George Saunders: At times it was like being shot out of a cannon. I loved it. It was a great year. You always worry about the opposite happening, your book will come out and nothing will occur and you’ll be on a downward spiral, so it was really great.

 "You’ll hear the short story is in decline, but if you go through and look at it, it seems like every year there’s some great book of short stories or four or five. It’s like Cosmo when they say “Green is back.” Green was always around." 

CM: There were several really good short stories collections out and of course Canadian short story writer Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature, so it seems like 2013 was also a year when the short story earned some much deserved respect.

GS: It’s funny how the storyline kind of ebbs and flows. You’ll hear the short story is in decline, but if you go through and look at it, it seems like every year there’s some great book of short stories or four or five. It’s like Cosmo when they say “Green is back.” Green was always around.

CM: So the short story is the new black that never really went out of style?

GS: Yeah that’s right. It must be partly also that the MFA programs are so powerful now. There’re so many people interested in them, and you can teach the novel in an MFA program but short story is easier to teach. I’m guessing there are a whole generation of MFA students who really understand the story.

CM: When I look at a story collection, I wonder how important the order of the stories are within the book. Is that something you craft as much as the individual stories themselves?

GS: This was a seven year project. You get somewhere around 200 pages, and also more importantly it feels like the aesthetic assumption that I’ve been making throughout is coming to a close. You’re done with a phase. At some point you finish all those and you feel you have the right players. What I do is take a bunch of index cards, put the title of the story the first and last lines on them, and I get down on the floor and start moving things around, almost like a Rubik’s Cube. . .The goal is very simple that when someone starts it they’ll be powered through to the end of it.

CM: I have a question about an analogy you made when you were on the Colbert Report last year, but before I ask, I have to know, how do you prepare to be interviewed by the “Stephen Colbert” persona?

GS: You don’t. You tremble and shake.

There’s no pre-show prep, except they give you a little coaching about how to conceptualize the rhetoric of the show. They say you should have two or three points you want to make and then come in and continue to try to make them, in spite of the fact you’re getting your butt kicked. He’s a master improviser. You can’t beat him. He’s so quick, you can’t believe it.

 "I remember thinking it was like being put in a cage with a tiger and you think: Oh my god, I’m still alive. I must be pretty good. Then you look at the tiger and know: Oh, I’m alive because he let me live." 

The second time I was on there — both times I had a really good time — but the second time I thought it went better. I remember thinking it was like being put in a cage with a tiger and you think: Oh my god, I’m still alive. I must be pretty good. Then you look at the tiger and know: Oh, I’m alive because he let me live.

They did give me one bit of advice that made sense. You have to imagine that he’s a drunk uncle who you really love that you’re trying to explain it to him and he’s not getting it.

CM: When that “drunk uncle” asked you to defend the short story over the novel, you made the point that the short story was “genetically related to a joke.” Taking that analogy further does that make Tenth of December, or any story collection, something like a stand up set?

GS: Yeah. I think that’s absolutely right. For me that’s a really great way to think of it. What you’re trying to do — just like in really great stand up like Carlin or Pryor or Louie C.K.— within the framework of a comedy routine you’re trying to hit all kinds of highs and lows, depths and shallowness. When you step away from a short story collection, I think you could have a scale model of the universe. . .You might have some real slap stick and you might have some deep pathos. So when the person steps away they might say, “Oh yeah, the universe feels kind of like that.” It’s various and it’s got highs and lows. It’s got tragedy and schtick, so I think that’s a pretty good analogy.

CM: One of the aspects of your stories I love is the inner thoughts of the characters. It feels like you have very authentically mapped the cadence and language of our thoughts, especially of the interior life of people living in the 21st century. But this made me wonder if you believe that we think differently than people did in the past, say even a 100 years ago.

GS: That’s an interesting one because I’m working on something now that’s set in the 1800s kind of in a silly way. But I have to say no, because I think it’s the same as it ever was, in a certain way. I think people’s basic thought patterns are always going to be informed by a person’s notion of his own centrality. So somebody walking through a 14th century market place is still kind of thinking: Me, Me, Me, I would imagine. A lot of our thought patterns comes from that basic human dilemma that we’re the only real person in the world, that everyone else is in our show.

I would imagine though, contradicting myself, that from time to time that would change. I think we live in an intensely narcissistic culture, but I can imagine a culture that was maybe more communal where those thoughts would be softened. But basically I guess my premise is no. . . I think we’ve always been what we are.

The George Saunders Inprint reading at the Alley Theatre on Jan. 27 is sold out. He will give a craft talk that is free and open to the public at 2:30 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 27, at the UH Honors College Commons in the M. D. Anderson Library, University of Houston Central Campus. 

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