George Saunders on writing, empathy and ‘Tenth of December’

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George Saunders’ short story collection “Tenth of December” is receiving high praise, and topping bestseller lists. That’s despite the fact that according to most everyone in publishing, short story collections don’t sell. Everyone -- Stephen Colbert, Charlie Rose, Newshour -- wants to ask him why not a novel? Why short stories?

I didn’t.

Instead, in this interview, Saunders talks about writing and about empathy; about channeling the play-acting of his Chicago-area childhood to inhabit the vernacular of a particular character; buzzkills and Los Angeles when it was a bummer; and the way he finds constraints to be productive.

Saunders, a creative writing professor at Syracuse University, enjoys teaching. “I think I’ve become a little addicted to the constant influx of new ideas, and also that raw enthusiasm that we have when we are in our 20s,” he explains. “It’s almost like an IV of excitement that I very shamelessly tap into.”


He told us a little bit about his writing cohort that the New Yorker identified in 1999 as “20 under 40,” all of whom have helped shape contemporary fiction (nonfiction, too). This photograph, from left, shows Junot Diaz, Rick Moody, Edwidge Danticat, David Foster Wallace, Saunders and Jeffery Eugenides; four of the six have won MacArthur “genius grants” for their work.

Saunders also talked a little bit about the writers that preceded him, including Russians, and why being uncomfortable can be good for us as we get older, and as we make art.

About Saunders’ collection “Tenth of December,” Times book critic David L. Ulin writes, “What the book at its best achieves is a vivid synergy between the ridiculous culture we have built for ourselves and the heartbreak and longing of our inner lives.”


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