As an environmental engineer working in Sumatra and Rochester, New York, in the 1980s and ’90s, George Saunders might have been the last person to believe he’d later receive a MacArthur genius fellowship for writing story collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) and In Persuasion Nation (2006). Born in Amarillo, Texas, he grew up in Oak Forest before earning his B.S. from the Colorado School of Mines. On Tuesday, the humble humorist and Syracuse University fiction-writing prof releases his fourth story collection, Tenth of December (Random House, $26).
How did Chicago impact your writing?
There was a lot of humor in the house, always. It was considered a powerful thing to be funny and quick, to find wonder in the world. My dad would come home [from working at a coal company on the South Side] and recount these crazy stories. One time he got held up against a Coke machine with a gun to his head for 40 minutes. Another time he almost got his car tipped over. To hear him tell all this was like having a novelist come home and tell you these dark stories.
When did you realize those early stories were meaningful?
I had a long period of worshipping a few writers—Hemingway, Kerouac, Thomas Wolfe—and as a young writer, all you can do is imitate those people. But the one thing that was missing was a sense of humor. I thought humor was for comedy clubs and that literature was deathly serious. Then I went to grad school [at Syracuse] and was finally like, Oh fuck it, I’ll let all that stuff in.
You also balance humor with sorrow or pain. How do you strike that balance?
The writer’s main job is to make a connection with the reader. What I really loved in this book was when [those] two things were just like best friends. They were two different versions of honesty.
Your characters typically speak in a hyperbolized vernacular that seems to satirize language’s evolution. What inspires this?
They’re influenced by my way of speaking. I’m not that articulate. But I don’t really think of it as satirizing so much as celebrating. A person can be inarticulate and incredibly passionate, and the result is often kind of wonderful.
Is it just me, or do you display more affection and hope for your characters in Tenth of December?
I really like people. I even like people I don’t like. But it’s hard to write a story that genuinely represents something that’s hopeful and affectionate. I feel like at this stage in the game, that’s becoming easier.
You’ve appeared on The Colbert Report and Letterman. How do you feel about your literary rock-star status?
As a writer it has no effect on your life. I’ve never once been recognized in public, thank God. If you go somewhere, like another college, they’ve prepped for you and know who you are. But the minute you get off campus, you’re just an old bald dude again.
Saunders talks Tenth of December at Lincoln Hall Tuesday 8.