A couple of years ago, I went for a reading by George Saunders at Seattle’s Town Hall. I wasn’t familiar with his work then, but I went anyway because it was George Saunders, an author who, according to the New York Times, had written the best book of 2013.
Saunders read Victory Lap that evening, the first short story from his collection ‘Tenth of December’. I loved listening to him. So much so that I bought the hard cover edition of the book and stood in a book-signing line that snaked all the way to the auditorium entrance. By the time it was my turn, more than an hour had passed. I slid my book in and mentioned my name quickly so that I didn’t hold up the line. I didn’t want to make his long evening on a long book tour even longer.
He signed the book, looked up at me with a smile, and said, “Thanks so much for coming. What do you do?”
An awkward silence followed as I processed the fact that the great George Saunders was talking to me. The man who had just entertained a full house at Town Hall with a short story reading had asked me a question.
“Microsoft,” I said, finally. “I work at Microsoft.”
“Oh, I was there earlier today!” he said. “Gave a reading there.”
As he continued to ask me about the work I did, I was moved by his genuine interest in me. He then spoke to everyone who followed me in the line with the same curiosity as well. In the larger scheme of things, it was just a small kindness on his part but I thought about it again today when I read his latest article where he talks about how his writing teachers showed him the value of being gentle and respectful:
“One day I walk up to campus. I stand outside the door of Doug’s office, ogling his nameplate, thinking: “Man, he sometimes sits in there, the guy who wrote Leaving the Land.” At this point in my life, I’ve never actually set eyes on a person who has published a book. It is somehow mind-blowing, this notion that the people who write books also, you know, live: go to the store and walk around campus and sit in a particular office and so on. Doug shows up and invites me in. We chat awhile, as if we are peers, as if I am a real writer too. I suddenly feel like a real writer. I’m talking to a guy who’s been in People magazine. And he’s asking me about my process. Heck, I must be a real writer.”
It was mind-blowing to me that a person who could write the living daylights out of a book spoke to me, just another fan in one more seemingly endless line, like there was no difference between us. I left Town Hall that night surprised and moved. And strangely enough, as I read Saunder’s article today, I realized that it was a feeling not dissimilar to how Saunders felt when he visited writer and teacher Tobias Wolff’s house almost three decades ago:
“Toby has the grad students over to watch A Night at the Opera. Mostly I watch Toby, with his family. He clearly adores them, takes visible pleasure in them, dotes on them. I have always thought great writers had to be dysfunctional and difficult, incapable of truly loving anything, too insane and unpredictable and tortured to cherish anyone, or honor them, or find them beloved.
Wow, I think, huh.”