Last night in Fort Greene’s Greenlight Bookstore, a woman with a slightly worried look on her face was holding a microphone and asking the person in front of her, “Um, where’s George?” Her friend sounded less concerned. “Oh, he’ll be fine. He’s in very good company.”
They were referring to George Saunders, the literary phenomenon whose latest and highly anticipated short-story collection, Tenth of December, was released on Tuesday. He was there to launch the book, and in good company he was indeed. Greenlight was packed. Really packed. Dozens were waiting outside the door trying but unable to get in. Meanwhile, about 200 people were crammed into the not-very-big neighborhood shop, elbow-to-elbow, many unsuccessfully attempting to find a spot where they could see Saunders once he started reading. But nobody really seemed to mind. They were just happy to be there.
One of the reasons Greenlight was overflowing was the compelling cover story in last Sunday’s The New York Times Magazine, “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year,” a piece authored by Joel Lovell (who was in attendance at the reading). From small talk in the store, it was clear the audience largely agreed with that headline. “This is a book people are going to be reading not just in 2013, but for a realllly long time” said the person to our left.
A few minutes later, Saunders was found and summoned to the front of the crowd. Sporting dark-rimmed glasses, a blazer, jeans, a button-down, brushed-back longish gray-blonde hair, and a very earnest smile, Saunders looked cool, but not too cool. It’s hard to explain, but he seemed like a genuinely nice and gracious guy. He was beaming.
Saunders thanked the crowd, and started reading from “Escape from Spiderhead,” a story first published in The New Yorker in 2010, about a man who participates in scifi-esque trials for drugs that control emotions and feelings. Saunders is a real writer’s writer, and many in the room were surely basking in the presence of their literary superhero. The energy was tangible. Saunders put on particularly great voices, and both he and the audience looked like they were having a lot of fun. But unlike a lot of readings, this one didn’t go on for too long. Saunders stopped midway through the story, shifted into Q&A, and politely announced that he would take only three questions.
“I like to think whoever asks the first question is usually the person with the most sexual drive in the room.” People laughed. Nobody asked a question. “I guess the rumors about Brooklyn aren’t true!” Saunders said. But he spoke too soon. A brave soul broke the silence: “Are you going to write a novel?” Saunders has published four highly acclaimed short-story collections, but no novels yet. “I’ve written about four (novels)!” he said. “If I get into this space where I accrue pages, the energy runs out … I petition for the definition of the novel to come down.” What did he have in mind? “Seventeen pages.” Then he added, “And congratulations on your sexual energy!”
The next question was about writing from the perspective of kids, which Saunders often does in Tenth of December. He said it’s like he’s working with a “third-person ventriloquist,” and that in order to get inside his characters he has to go back to his own childhood. “My tricks are kind of small,” he said. “Ninety percent” of writing is “what you already know.”
And then the final question: “What was the last thing that surprised you?” Saunders replied quickly and without hesitation. “Being here tonight.”