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Friday November 21st 2014

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Not So Common Read

Writer George Saunders Speaks at University of West Florida
by Kate Peterson

George Saunders, multiple award-winning and best-selling author, is visiting the Panhandle as part of the University of West Florida’s, Common Read program.

According to Jonathan Fink, Assistant Professor and Director of Creative Writing at UWF, the Common Read Program was established as part of the Delphi Project, which is a residential and intellectual experience for incoming freshmen. The Common Read will be infused in freshmen courses and even adopted in more advanced classes across the curriculum. “Critical thinking” was the focus for the 2010 Common Read and members of the Common Read Selection Committee, which had representation from across the campus community.

Saunders is a best-selling writer of short stories, essays, novellas and a children’s book. He writes regularly for The New Yorker, Harper’s, GQ and Esquire. Saunders appeared on the “Late Show with David Letterman” and “The Colbert Report” to promote his collection of essays, “The Braindead Megaphone”. Comedian, actor and writer Ben Stiller purchased the film rights to “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline”–the project remains a work in progress.
Notably, Saunders was a named a fellow by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and given a genius grant because of the compassion for the lives he depicts. The fellowship is awarded by the MacArthur Foundation each year to typically 20 to 25 citizens or residents of the United States of any age and working in any field who “show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.”

As Saunders says, “It is so nice to be recognized. The MacArthur was a life changer. Writing is a mushy job–You are not always sure you are doing it well. The awards say, at least, you are doing something right.”
Saunders won a Guggenheim Fellowship, an award intended for people who demonstrate exceptional creative ability in the arts, and an Academy of Arts & Letters award.

He has produced three collections of fiction short stories: “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline”, “Pastoralia” and “In Persuasion Nation”; two novellas: “The Very Persistent Grappers of Frip”, a children’s book, and “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil”; a collection of essays: “The Braindead Megaphone”; and a nonfiction chapbook: “A Bee Stung Me, So I Killed All the Fish”.

Talking about his writing process, Saunders says, “I love writing every day. Mornings are reserved for writing. For nonfiction, I am normally given an assignment. For fiction, I find a fragment of something that interests me. Put it down–play with it. Steps to building a story often come from the subconscious. Often nonfiction becomes fiction.”

He wasn’t always a celebrated writer of satire and surrealism; his first career was as a geophysical engineer and technical writer for Radian International. Seems like an odd choice, but Saunders says this about the experience, “I was friends with some folks who were already in the business, and it just made sense for me at the time. During my time as a geophysicist, I traveled to Sumatra. The job allowed me to see more of the world and gather new experiences. I soon came to realize that my love of reading could be combined with chronicling my travels and lead to work as a writer. If you love something–then do it.”

One particularly harrowing experience George wrote about for GQ was called “Tent City, U.S.A”. The story chronicled his time spent living in a homeless tent city in Fresno, Calif. He says, “I have a new enthusiasm for the variety and weirdness of the world.”

Since 1997, Saunders has been professor of creative writing at Syracuse University. He had this to say when asked to comment about the new crop of students coming in for 2011: “They are a slice of the future. I have been working on the admissions for the graduate program–only six will make it out of 500 applications. We gravitated to those who submitted stories communicating intimate relations with the reader–when we felt a human being on the other side. You can’t ever tell in the beginning who is going to rise to the top.”

When Fink was asked how Saunders’ work was chosen for the UWF Common Read program, he said, “The UWF Common Read selection committee—through a process of nomination, discussion and selection—chose the essay collection “The Braindead Megaphone” by George Saunders as the inaugural book for the 2010-2011 UWF Common Read Program. The essay collection includes a diverse selection of essays, each of which models clearly for students the nuances of critical inquiry. The subjects of the essays range from media criticism to essays on the complexities of international political/philosophical/spiritual issues to literary criticism and humor pieces.”
Saunders will be reading a short story he wrote for The New Yorker. He has never spent any time in Florida and is looking forward to the experience.

info@inweekly.net

AUTHOR GEORGE SAUNDERS AT UWF
WHEN: 4-5 p.m. Q&A, 7-8:30 p.m. Public reading and lecture, Thursday, March 24
WHERE: UWF Music Hall in the Center for Fine and Performing Arts, Bldg. 82, 11000 University Parkway
COST: Free
DETAILS: uwf.edu/commonread