The Philbrook Museum, the TU English Department, the Tulsa Artist Fellowship and Magic City Books all jointly hosted an intimate night with George Saunders.
The Philbrook Museum recently hosted George Saunders, one of the most celebrated authors of our time, to Tulsa for an evening that was as much about the love of creative writing as it was the author’s life and career. Saunders, primarily known for his short-story collections, such as “In Persuasion Nation” or “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” recently expanded his creative efforts, authoring the experimental historical fiction novel “Lincoln in the Bardo.” The University of Tulsa Creative Writing Department, the Tulsa Artist Fellowship, Magic City Books and other creative organizations helped sponsor the event.
Saunders is a hard author to box into a single category. His works, from what I’ve read of him, are often satiric, effectively dramatic and characterized by a remarkably sharp wit. I won’t pretend to be his most well-read fan; in fact, I wasn’t much of a fan at all until very recently.
Exposed at too young an age to his oddball criticism of consumerist culture in his short story collection, “In Persuasion Nation,” I misunderstood what his stories were meant to convey; I thought his work to be an unflinching mockery of the middle class, and I imagined him casting a distasteful glance over the “fly-over states” he often set his stories in. Having been re-exposed to his work through a Creative Writing course earlier this semester, I was more willing to give him a second chance. Now, after having spent a couple hours listening to his down-to-earth philosophies and his own elaboration on how much of his writing comes from a deep feeling of empathy for his characters, I’m ready to say I’m a fan.
The evening opened with a “Writer’s Salon” in which three Fellows in the Tulsa Artist Fellowship got up to read their own work, with each reading taking about twenty minutes. Each story was different from the last: Dan Musgrave’s described two primates communicating through a human-built machine, Laurie Thomas read a work focused on the tension between a young girl and the colonizer invading her home by romancing her aunt and Jennifer Hope Davy’s focal point was the drama surrounding the digital economy of popular MMO “World of Warcraft.”
After the readings, Professor Keija Parssinen briefly touched upon the relatively new Creative Writing program at TU. Finally, to introduce George Saunders himself, student Ethan Veenker, an English major described the positive effect Saunders’s work had had on his own creative efforts.
The rest of the evening consisted of George Saunders discussing on stage his motivation for writing, and the effect it had on his life. I was surprised by how soft-spoken and kind he was. He spoke of growing up in the heart of America and relating to the plights of the middle class. He called his work a mix between “Monty Python and John Steinbeck.” Maybe my favorite story of the evening was his recounting the first novel he’d ever tried to write, before he’d found short stories to be a more favorable craft. After he’d spent over a year on it, his wife didn’t hesitate to let him know her opinion on it, and the result was a momentary feeling of devastation regarding his future as a writer. When she next read some limericks he’d scrawled in his notebook at work, she had such a positive reaction he realized needed only to take a different approach to his writing.
Additionally, he talked about staying in a homeless shelter for a week for research, attending Trump rallies and having a piece on Trump supporters rejected three times and the time he got sick by swimming in a body of water in which a dozen native monkeys were defecating.
If any one thing sticks with me from such that evening (besides the book I got signed by him; I had to muster up some courage for that and still ended up hiding behind Ethan Veenker while he spoke to him), I hope it can be the message that great works should have some sense of good in them. Saunders said that it was easy in writings to be dark or harsh or cynical, but that writers should aspire to have some glimmer of hope in their writings as well. It was eye-opening for me, regarding his work, and I’m excited to read his books knowing the mindset he had when he wrote them. Maybe what I mistook for mockery was just his way of accurately portraying the beautiful-ugly lives of his characters.
At the end of the evening, it was announced Mayor G. T. Bynum made February 16 George Saunders Day, to show Tulsa’s appreciation for the author.
Saunders’s latest book and first novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” won the 2017 Man Booker Prize and is out now in paperback.