George Saunders’s biography reads like one of his short stories. A young man from a working-class family who studies to become a geothermal engineer ends up one of the country’s leading literary voices and wins a MacArthur “genius grant.’’ A year ago the author of the award-winning story collection “Tenth of December” gave a refreshing convocation address at Syracuse University, where he teaches. Last month, his talk, “Congratulations, by the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness,” was published by Random House.
BOOKS: Since you play guitar do you read about music?
SAUNDERS: Yes. We went on vacation last year, and I just read rock memoirs: Neil Young’s, Graham Nash’s, and Keith Richards’s. Another great memoir is Rodney Crowell’s “Chinaberry Sidewalks,” which is about how a young person who isn’t from an artistic background finds art. That speaks to me.
BOOKS: Do you read other kinds of nonfiction?
SAUNDERS: I loved Lawrence Wright’s book about Scientology, “Going Clear.” I was amazed by the research and how he folded it into his novelistic storytelling. I read Edmund Wilson’s “Patriotic Gore,” a brilliant survey of Civil War literature. I finally finished “A People’s Tragedy,” a history of the Russian Revolution by Orlando Figes. Like a master novelist Figes keeps moving to different sides of the story. I read a lot about Russia and by Russians. It must be a reincarnation issue.
BOOKS: What’s on your summer reading list?
SAUNDERS: In the summer I get really aggressive about wanting something to fire me up to write. In the pile of galleys I have I found three things to get me going: Lydia Davis’s story collection “Can’t and Won’t,” Miranda July’s novel “The First Bad Man,” and Lena Dunham’s “Not That Kind of Girl.” Dunham’s essays are as shocking and honest as her TV work.
BOOKS: Did you grow up going to the library in Chicago?
SAUNDERS: I remember going to the library near my grandmother’s. There was this reverent hush. It had a lot of oak so the library had that old-time smell. There were these screens that made a beautiful light, and you could see all these dust motes. It was like church. That really gets into a kid’s head in a certain way.
BOOKS: Did your time in Sumatra, when you worked for an oil-exploration company, change you as a reader?
SAUNDERS: Yes. I never really had had time to read because engineering college beat me up pretty bad. In Sumatra we had four weeks on and then two weeks off. All we had was a TV that got a couple Indonesian channels. Whenever I went to Singapore I would do a run on a bookstore there and fill a bag with books. At that point I was so ill-read, I couldn’t distinguish high from low. I’d just grab stuff I had heard of. I’d read everything I bought.
BOOKS: What did you discover about yourself as a reader?
SAUNDERS: If a book didn’t have a line-to-line sizzle I didn’t take it seriously. I always looked for someone like Hemingway because I loved him so. I also learned that I’m really American. Kerouac hit me hard over there. I read “Visions of Gerard,” which is a beautiful little novel about his older brother who died as a child.
BOOKS: What did you read when you got back?
SAUNDERS: I came back with a realization that maybe Hemingway wasn’t enough for me because what I saw in Asia was so weird, and the juxtapositions were so postmodern. We’d be out in an ancient rainforest carrying a digital computer on hand-carved wooden rods. But I never believed in contemporary literature until I read Stuart Dybek. When I was living in Chicago with my aunt I set myself a mission to spend a day reading new stuff so I can see if my suspicions were right. I went downtown to the Chicago Public Library. I gathered up every literary journal and started reading. Nothing spoke to me so I thought I was right about contemporary literature. Then I picked up Antaeus, which had “Hot Ice’’ by Stuart Dybek. I got one page into it, and my face was hot. That was the first time contemporary literature was in full color for me.