Author George Saunders is having the kind of year that could lead the former roofer and slaughterhouse worker to imagine that someone is spritzing the air around him with a giant bottle of perfume.
"The way things have been going recently, it's as if I had a personal sprayer walking behind me and making sure that the world always smells sweet," says the New York-based writer, who will visit Baltimore on April 13 to headline the 10th annual CityLit Festival.
With the publication in January of his new book, "Tenth of December," Saunders, 54, a professor at Syracuse University, has been receiving the kind of attention seldom given to short-story writers — even those who, like him, received a 2006 MacArthur "genius" grant.
Improbably for a book of short stories, when "Tenth of December" debuted, it not only made The New York Times best-seller list for hardcover fiction but even climbed to second place.
A headline in The New York Times Magazine described the collection as "the best book you'll read this year." And as recently as Wednesday, Saunders picked up a PEN/Malamud Award, a distinction previously given to such literary giants as Saul Bellow, John Updike and Eudora Welty.
This all can be a little discombobulating for a guy whose fiction is filled with a keen awareness of the void between life's haves and have-nots.
"The danger is that you get this bubble of approval that's very seductive and smooth, and you start to think that the world will always react to you in a nice way," Saunders says. "But it didn't react that way when I was a roofer. I have to remind myself that it isn't the world that's changed, just my intersection with it."
First things first: Is it true that one of your short stories inspired Geico's "so easy, a caveman could do it" commercials?
Yes, there was a radio interview in which they 'fessed up. The guy who was working on the Geico ad campaign in 2003 was reading my second book at the time. The title story, "Pastoralia," is about a professional caveman who works in a theme park.
You've had some offbeat jobs of your own. How did someone as cerebral as you are and as infatuated with words end up doing manual labor and working on an oil exploration rig in Sumatra?
My grades in high school weren't good, though my SAT scores were. I flunked a couple of subjects. But I had these two great high school teachers, one geologist and one English teacher, who got me into the Colorado School of Mines. That training led to the job in Asia.
That's when I began to realize how polarized the world really is. When I went over, I was this Reagan kid and this Ayn Rand acolyte. Being over there was a real eye-opener for what the world actually was like.
I later had another interesting capitalist moment when I worked in a slaughterhouse in Chicago for about two weeks. It was physically really hard. I'd get up in the morning, and I wouldn't be able to open my hands.
So, that's what inspired your experimental story, "The Semplica-Girl Diaries," in which Third World women are used as living lawn ornaments to decorate middle-class American homes. What struck me was the story's moral complexity.
Thank you. That's a story that started with a dream. I was looking out my window and I saw a group of Third World women floating in the air with a wire through their heads. The strange note was that the guy watching from the window was really happy. He felt no shame and no guilt.
And what I didn't quite get was how a good person, how an entire culture, gets to that place where a moral breakdown gets to be widely disseminated and accepted.
What I learned from writing that story is that people don't generally do evil things with some joyful desire to be evil. They delude themselves into thinking that what they're doing is morally defensible.
The two bookend stories, "Victory Lap" and "Tenth of December" are about two people who save each other, and in so doing, save themselves. Where does that outlook come from?
I suppose at some level it comes from a childhood of being raised in the Catholic Church, where salvation comes from a human being who does something to help you. The New Testament was the first book that I ever really got to study.
I've also had that experience in my own life, with the same two high school teachers, Joe Lindbloom and Sheri Williams. When I got back from Asia, I was really drifting, living out of my aunt's basement. They'd gotten married and they had a little baby, and they said, "You've always wanted to be a writer. Come live with us and sleep in our attic. You won't have to work for a few months, and we'll be gone during the day."
And I did. I basically wrote a whole book. It wasn't very good, but it got me enough forward momentum so that I eventually enrolled in graduate school.
Some of your stories are set in a futuristic, alternate universe, and others are set in the here and now. How do you decide which is which?
It happens as needed. Many of my stories have ghosts in them. Early in my career, I was very concerned with binary opposites: serious stories versus funny, experimental fiction versus realistic fiction.
What I've noticed is that the most sophisticated thing is to answer yes. In other words, if I'm trying to decide, "Does my story have genre elements or not?" the answer is yes to both. It pushes you off that easy opposition and forces you to find a third way.