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Inquiring Minds Have Questions for Author George Saunders

George Saunders
Award-winning author George Saunders will deliver the 2018 Conarroe Lecture to a sold-out crowd on Monday.

This year's sold-out Joel Conarroe Lecture on Monday night features author George Saunders, whose current novel Lincoln in the Bardo won the Man Booker Prize for 2017. Saunders is the recipient of a 2006 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship ("Genius" Award), and the author of four collections of short stories, a novella, a book of essays, and an award-winning children's book.

"George Saunders is the love child between James Joyce, David Foster Wallace and Walt Disney," said fan Thomas Waddill '19. "His writing is like candy that, when you eat it, makes you a better person."

Here, Davidson voices respond to two simple questions about Saunders and his work.

If you could ask George Saunders one question, what would it be?
I am technophobic and old-fashioned, I don't know what a meme is, I don't know what a hashtag is and I don't know what a Kardashian is. But this piece of prose (Lincoln in the Bardo) is so musical that I am very curious as to the process by which it would have been made into an audio book, and Saunders' thoughts on how it turned out. If ever there was a book that was meant to be heard, this is that book. I read several pages out loud every day, the way I read poetry.
-Joel O. Conarroe '56, Past-President of PEN American Center

If you could ask George Saunders one question, what would it be?
In Lincoln in the Bardo, Abraham Lincoln visits the cemetery where his beloved son has just been interred. Spirits who are stuck in an in-between space (the bardo) hover in that graveyard... They don't know that their struggles are over. When a living person enters their space, they rush to him for comfort, each telling a story of pain or confusion or frustration. Lincoln cannot hear them, exactly, because of his own suffering and because, well, they're ghosts. But they may be able to influence him subtly, as their feelings and perspectives seep into his.

My question, then: in the novel, how much is that Lincoln the historical Lincoln, the guy on the penny, and how much is he a representative human?–not as sensitive as he might be, nor as aware as others might wish, but worthy of compassion himself, and with immeasurable potential?
-Randy Ingram, Professor of English

If you could spend one hour with George Saunders anywhere, where would it be? If you could ask George Saunders one question, what would it be?
I would to take George Saunders to the top of Disney's Splash Mountain and ask him how the world will end. (I'm not being ironic, and I put serious thought into this.)
-Thomas Waddill '19

If you could spend one hour with George Saunders anywhere, where would it be and why?
Does anyone imagine and recreate on the page the inner lives of ordinary people better than George Saunders? Who wouldn't want to buy him a bourbon at Flat Iron and have him fictionalize downtown Davidson? As long as he doesn't start with me.
-Jeanne Neumann, Professor of Classics

If you could spend one hour with George Saunders anywhere, where would it be and why? 
Easy. At Bryce Falls, the setting of his great 1996 story "The Falls," where two girls are about to be swept away to their deaths. I'd be the character Morse, agonizing over whether to take the plunge. He'd be George Saunders, the author inside my head. And it would only take two minutes (which would seem like an hour).
-Randy Nelson, Virginia Lasater Irvin Professor of English

If you could ask George Saunders one question, what would it be?
Again, easy. Why the bardo [Lincoln in the Bardo]? What I mean is that there must be 20 different ways to approach (or solve) the supernatural aspect of the story. So why Tibetan Buddhism?
-Randy Nelson, Virginia Lasater Irvin Professor of English

If you could spend one hour with George Saunders anywhere, where would it be and why? 
To me, no major writer since Keats has been both as observant and as genuinely comfortable with incertitude as Saunders.

So if I could secure his exclusive attention for an hour, it would be during a contentious meeting. I would want to learn from him how to move beyond the considerable but possibly sterile pleasures I currently draw from the uncertainty principle Saunders teases out in The Braindead Megaphone. In the interest of full disclosure, I admit to attending most faculty meetings primarily to delight in the anticipation of identifiable "idling" modes, and I am yet to be disappointed. But at 62, I really hope to be disappointed, deeply, soon, and often [from Saunders' story "The Braindead Megaphone"]:

"The mind, it occurs to me, is an engine. There is an ambient mode in which the mind sits idling, before there is information. Some minds idle in a kind of dreading crouch, waiting to be offended. Others stand up straight, eyes slightly wide, expecting to be pleasantly surprised. Some minds, imaging the great What Is Out There, imagine it intends doom for them; others imagine there is something out there that may be suffering and in need of their help.

"Which is right?

"Neither.

"Both.

"Maybe all of our politics is simply neurology writ large. Maybe there are a finite number of idling modes. Maybe there are just two broad modes, and out of this fact comes our current division."

-Zoran Kuzmanovich, Professor of English

About the Conarroe Lecture Series

The Conarroe Lecture Series at Davidson is named in honor of Joel Conarroe '56, who served as president of PEN American Center, president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and executive director of the Modern Language Association.

Novelist Joyce Carol Oates inaugurated the Conarroe Lectureship in 2002, and those who followed her include some of the most notable authors of this era: Michael Cunningham, Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondaatje, Annie Proulx, Michael Chabon, Russell Banks, Margaret Atwood, W.S. Merwin, Edward Hirsch, Richard Wright '57 and Don DeLillo.


John Syme
josyme@davidson.edu
704-894-2523