I have been meaning to do this ever since I had the great pleasure of seeing, and meeting, George Saunders at two separate Wordfest events in Calgary earlier this month. I got a bit of face-time with him (even sat in the back seat of a car with him on the way to dinner and could barely concentrate on the wonderful conversation because I just kept thinking “I’m in a car with George Saunders, I’m in a car with George Saunders” – fortunately I did NOT do a Homer Simpson and blurt it out).
Anyway I’d told some of my writer friends that George said some very inspirational things, about writing, about compassion, even about fighting back against Trump. So I am sharing them, just in case you ever have a moment where you need a bit of inspiration. Because we all need inspiration; lord knows I need a ton of it.
Just before I share, here are a couple of photos from the first event. George brought a bunch of authors and performers up on stage to read from “Lincoln in the Bardo” with him (which is an incredible novel, by the way), including the amazing Marina Endicott – it was the best reading I’ve ever witnessed, possibly because it was rather like theatre.
Afterward he was interviewed by Zsuzsi Gartner, who did an exceptional job. He later told her she’d pulled him away from his usual schtick (he’s been on the road for a long time and interviewed a lot).
The dinner event was also incredible – 60 people, with an informal Q and A with George afterward. Michal Lavi at Sidewalk Citizen Bakery is in charge of putting on these evenings, called “Tzavta” – “Curated Conversations about Art and Substance” – they are phenomenal. I wish we had something similar in Vancouver.
(Just as an aside: During a break to get coffee I went to another table to introduce myself to uber talent Emma Donoghue because we were doing an event together the next night. I sat in the seat across from her to chat. A woman walked toward me after a few minutes and I asked if I was in her seat. She said, gruffly, “Yes you are.” So I got up, thinking, okay, grumpy pants, I’m going, and just as I walked past her I realized – holy shit, that’s K.D. Lang! Heh. She can be gruff with me any day.
Okay, but to the quotes I managed to write down:
He had a teacher who said “you’re only allowed three dream sequences in your life as a writer, so don’t waste them.” (I believe I already have).
“If you know where the story is going and it’s obeying you, it’s probably a low energy story.”
“When it becomes pleasurable (when the woman is turned to look out the window at the hobo under the bridge) – that is when the story starts to reveal itself. Theme, philosophy, politics, will come out on its own.” (for more on the hobo under the bridge, see the article he wrote on writing for the Guardian).
“Don’t let me decide what a story’s about because then I’m in trouble.” (I loved this one).
“One set of bad pages is not the end of the world.”
“The gods of fiction: You write, “Bob was an asshole.” The gods ask, Why? You say “he yelled at a barista.” “Why?” “Because she reminded him of his wife. His dead wife, who died last year.” The point being, specificity can lead to compassion.”
When he wrote Bardo he was terrified of giving up his best gift, which is contemporary voice. But he also talked about learning to face challenges/problems head on, whereas as a younger writer he would turn away/avoid those problems.
Referring to dealing with his kids, and with a novel in progress: “I love them so much, there is something strange in what they’re doing, maybe I need to pay more attention to that.”
“Charm, compel, propel – your job as a writer.”
He also had a great Margaret Atwood story from the Hay Writer’s Festival – MA is one of his idols, and he was driving with her to the festival in a van, and he was really hung over. The driver seemed to know this and drove erratically and George was terrified he would be sick in front of his idol. He felt a tap on his shoulder. It was MA, offering a pill. Take this. He didn’t know what it was – it could have been Viagra for all he knew – but it was Margaret Atwood. So he took it. A few minutes later she gave him a different pill. Now take this. He did. A few minutes after that he started to feel much better, and by the time they got there he felt great. She’d given him some natural remedies and they worked.
ON TRUMP’S AMERICA
“Progressive’s condescension is what Trump supporters hate.”
“Respond with compassion, or fight back with fierceness? YES to both – they are not contradictory.”
“Compassion doesn’t have to be wimpy. Someone drives a spike through your head, you don’t have to say “thanks for the coat rack.” ”
“For goodness, peace and decency were never heaven-sent, and now more than ever we must all become our own alt president.”
GEORGE’S WIFE’S ADVICE WHEN HE GOES ON A BOOK TOUR:
(This is possibly my favourite): “Stay hydrated and don’t come home with your head up your ass.”
And that is that … It was so great to meet a writing idol and find out that he was also a truly lovely human being. He looked every person in the eye and was just present. Not a surprise perhaps that he is a Buddhist.
He also has a wicked sense of humor, and told us that he sometimes looks at “mentions” on his Facebook author page – apparently if someone just mentions you, even if they haven’t tagged you, you can see it – so he’s looked at whole conversational threads of people slagging his book and has been tempted to join the conversation! I loved this story – it made him so human. So I really hope he still does this, and sees this mention, and how, like most of his mentions I’m sure, it is one hundred percent positive. I was, am and always will be a devoted Saunders fan.