Saunders has done more than his part to fight that battle, through short stories and essays that are at once disarmingly conversational, harrowingly precise, wildly inventive and often just laugh-out-loud hilarious. This week he visits the University of Tampa as part of its Lectores series, a weeklong program of public readings held in conjunction with the kickoff session of UT’s new low-residency MFA in Creative Writing; I’ll be interviewing him Tuesday night on stage at UT’s Vaughn Center.
Over the phone or on late-night talk shows, where he’s been a guest of Stephen Colbert and David Letterman, Saunders comes off as a remarkably self-effacing guy, especially considering he’s a certified genius (he won a $500,000 MacArthur “genius grant” in 2006). But when he describes the time he got to meet some of his fellow geniuses during a MacArthur-sponsored weekend in Wisconsin, it’s clear how much he values the quality of modesty — and more importantly, a laser-like focus on the job at hand — in others.
“You think those things are going to be intimidating,” he says, “but it was like going home.” He met a preventative geophysicist who calculates the potential loss of life from tsunamis, then designs elevated parks to serve as refuge; a sculptor who creates latticelike sculptures out of Italian marble, “objects of intense concentration that she works on for months.”
“There was nobody who wasn’t some freakishly great person who’d been laboring for years on one thing on which they lavish all kinds of attention and love.”
His respect for a painstaking work ethic reflects his own early training as a scientist; so, too, does his empirical attitude toward the world. “In science you have a hypothesis. The trick is, if your hypothesis gets trashed it’s just as good as having it proven.” He’s always had a “low self-regard,” he says, the feeling that “I’m really not quite sure I get it. That leads you to be a little open to late-arriving data” — listening to what the world has to tell you, rather than imposing your own preconceptions upon it.
His advice for young writers? He tells an anecdote about the poet Robert Frost, whose response to a student’s complicated question about sonnet form was simply, “Don’t worry. Work.”
Writing is “iterative labor,” says Saunders. You can’t solve the problems in a story by worrying or intellectualizing. You solve them by writing for “another 10,000 hours.”
It’s like a relationship, he says. “You find you’re only dating roller derby queens who beat you up. But I like them, you say. So I have to find roller derby queens who won’t beat me up. Then I find it’s not roller derby queens — I just like tall women.”
It’s that empirical thing again. In making the “thousands of microdecisions” that go into a good story, he says, “there’s nothing like going in there and hitting your head over and over again.”
For Saunders, the medium in which he prefers to hit his head these days is fiction. His time as an essayist and a late-night public intellectual was fun for a while. “There were so many idiots speaking out, even if I’m only a medium idiot I’m a good-hearted idiot, I thought… But I noticed that that kind of thinking doesn’t bring out my best. When I’m writing fiction quietly at home I’m a nicer person, more perceptive.”
Thankfully for Tampa Bay, he’s leaving his home in upstate New York (where he teaches writing at Syracuse University) to share his perceptions with us at UT.The Lectores public readings series, which includes seven events within the month of January, coincides with the inaugural class of the new MFA in Creative Writing program at UT, a low-residency program that biannually brings writers from around the world to Tampa. The events are free and begin at 7:30 p.m.
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