I’ve got a thing for infrastructure. It isn’t as serious as what George Saunders referred to as “a Hemingway boner,” but I do get a little carried away by the weave of steel beams, and by the idea that minute calculations prevent thousands of tons of, say, a bridge, from collapsing.
“People ask me about ‘your writing process,'” George Saunders said last Friday at a Powell’s reading. “But really, it’s our writing process.” The other components to this process are his wife, Paula, and their two daughters.
The (obvious) metaphor is that without strong, enduring components—family, love, health, peace of mind—the entire structure will be compromised (civil engineers diplomatically say that poor calculations will “compromise capacity”). Saunders said that there was no way he could have written a thing without his wife. Really? you have to ask in disbelief that a writer whose writing gives us hope for the American short story would believe that the entire body of work would be a lesser thing, or nonexistent, without the enduring love of his family.
The first reader for “Tenth of December,” the title story of Saunders’s latest collection of stories was his wife Paula, who, Saunders said, returned the manuscript to him with only the word, “Tears,” written at the top.
When he found her response, Saunders said that he knew he would be sending the story in to The New Yorker.
Emerging from reading a Saunders story often makes me feel deliciously more aware of the off-balance elements of my day-to-day life, for instance, that dilapidated auto repair shop on North Interstate where gorgeous wrecks of hot rods sit under blackberry bushes. When I first read “Christmas,” from In Persuasion Nation (a slightly different form appeared in The New Yorker as “Chicago Christmas, 1984”), the simple play of the following passage resonated in my head for days.
I went somewhere else and started over, pulled head out of ass, made a better life. Basically, I’ve got stores. If you’ve ever had a store that supports a family, a family that actually brightens when you come in at night, you know what a good thing that is. And I wouldn’t go back to that roofing Me or that roofing Time for anything in the world.
But sometimes I imagine myself standing at that pay phone, in my tar-hardened clothes.
I was going to continue the Author Love Festival by including brief love bios of famous authors, but Google searches turned up contrary results, such as, “Cheating Stories,” “Sexting with a Married Woman,” and “Why Do Married Men Cheat.” Um, George Eliot was happily married, right? Nooo, nevermind. Well then, Virginia Woolf was married to Leonard Woolf for almost 30 years until she killed herself. Hmm, not a solid recommendation. Ah, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne: Lifelong romance and writerly companionship. And so on: Russell Banks has dedicated several of his books to his wife, poet Chase Twichell, and Richard Russo (New England!) has been in a happily ordinary marriage for as long as Wikipedia will reveal.
Really, though, the personal lives that my brief research revealed seriously bummed me out. What is said about not wanting to know the personal details of your author’s family life (poor Robert Frost!) is true. Divorce, mental illness, tragic and freaky deaths, affairs. How many other wire-tight tensions too poisonous to document run through the walls of these authors? So when I heard George Saunders say the words, “She’s a great reader and knows me inside and out,” and “I couldn’t do anything without her,” and “I can’t imagine not being married and writing these stories,” I cheer to think of writers in love.
Of finding inspiration outside of his family, which Saunders claims to “never come close to” finding a way to capture, Saunders said: “I operate on the idea that if there are people, there is literature. . .There’s confusion, there’s love, there’s everything.”
Here’s to finding that love within your own stories.