Lecture preview: George Saunders connects with his characters

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High praise has been heaped upon George Saunders, author of several collections of short stories, a collection of essays and a successful children's book. In January, Joel Lovell of The New York Times called his newest collection, "Tenth of December," "the best book you'll read this year."

Mr. Saunders, who speaks tonight at 7:30 in Oakland's Carnegie Music Hall, is also the author of two short story collections, "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline" and "In Persuasion Nation," plus a children's book, "The Very Persister Gappers of Frip."

In a telephone interview, the 55-year-old author sounds unaffected by such adulation. Perhaps that's due to his working-class roots and writing regularly in what he calls an "Internet-free shed."

George Saunders
Where: Carnegie Music Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland (15213).

When: 7:30 tonight

Tickets: $15-$35. 412-622-8866, pittsburghlectures.org or at the box office, which opens at 6:30 p.m.

"It happens to be out of the Internet range of the house," Mr. Saunders said, adding that he does carry a laptop to his retreat.

An L-shaped structure that's about the size of a one-car garage, the author's writing shed has beautiful wood floors, a bedroom, two desks and a meditation area. A bank of windows affords a view of a hillside in New York's Catskills. The shed is across the driveway from Mr. Saunders' home outside Oneonta, a community two hours southeast of Syracuse, N.Y.

Maybe it's the quiet in that space that allows Mr. Saunders to hear the voices of 14-year-olds like Alison Pope, who dances around her home in basic ballet steps, unaware of the violence she's about to confront in a story called "Victory Lap," which leads off "Tenth of December."

"I love that kind of writing where you can get inside someone's head like that. You can do so much with vulnerability and aspiration and confusion. She's full of herself and endearing. You feel tender toward her. That's the great thing about fiction is that you can represent the complexities of a person," Mr. Saunders said. "That girl was me at 15. Instead of ballet, I'd be fantasizing about playing hockey."

Alison's simplistic belief is that "to do good, you just have to decide to do good," a remark that builds toward the story's action.

"I love that as a kind of plot-generating device. Let somebody think and pretty soon you'll know what you might want to make happen to them," the writer said.

A geophysicist who was educated at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Mr. Saunders worked in the oil fields of Sumatra, a stint that allowed him to do a great deal of reading in his down time. Back in the U.S. during the 1980s, he attended a wild party in Amarillo, Texas, where a troupe of strippers was entertaining guests. Uninterested, he picked up a People magazine and read about writers Jay McInerney and Raymond Carver. That's when he learned about the graduate writing program at Syracuse and decided to apply. One of his teachers was Tobias Wolff.

Soon after entering the program, Mr. Saunders met and married his wife, Paula, and the couple had two daughters. They were broke, so he found a job as a technical writer.

"We felt outgunned by our lives -- not having much money and having two little kids we suddenly loved," Mr. Saunders recalled, adding that he was wracked by the fear of "Oh my God, maybe we'll fail them."

That deep-rooted anxiety pervades a story called "The Semplica Girl Diaries," a beautifully wrought tale about raising children in a consumer culture.

"When our kids were growing up, I didn't quite take ownership of our limited means. We were always trying to hide it by running up credit card debt," he said.

As a nation, "we've gotten less religious. In the absence of God or something, the material world looms large and it becomes a kind of a god. We start to believe in the trough as an altar. That is what that story is about. The guy in that story knows that materialism is not the ultimate thing."

For the past 16 years, Mr. Saunders has taught writing at Syracuse. As he grew up on Chicago's South Side, he was what he called a Dorothy Day Catholic. After he and his wife had children, they attended an Episcopal church for a while. Then, his wife read Thomas Merton and wanted to start a meditation group. A Tibetan lama visited their community, and eventually the couple embraced Buddhism.

"It gives you something to do every day that will improve you. Buddhism is really vital and wonderful," Mr. Saunders said.

The writer credits his father with giving him a love for storytelling.

"He would come home in a good mood with stories for us. He always put his wife first. That's a great thing for a young boy to see. My No. 1 job is to be a good husband. Being a good father and being a good person comes out of that."

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.

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