George Saunders is well known for his inventive use of language; perhaps his willingness to explore and exploit the forms and function of language derives in part from his earlier career, as a geophysical engineer. Saunders credits his early exposure to the works of Ayn Rand (some of the first fiction he recalls reading) with his decision to enter the field of engineering in college. "I read [her books] and I thought that's what I want to do," Saunders said in an interview with Guernica, "I want to be one of the earth movers, the scientific people who power the world. And I don't want to be one of these lisping liberal artsy leeches." Soon after getting his degree from the Colorado School of Mines, Saunders was traveling the world - including an extended stay in Sumatra - doing site evaluation for oil drilling.
During this somewhat isolated and lonely time, Saunders began reading literature more widely and was introduced to the work of other fiction authors beyond Rand - notably Tom Wolfe, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ernest Hemingway. Soon he started down a different path, one that would eventually land him at the MFA program at Syracuse University, where he still teaches in the creative writing program. His first unpublished works of fiction were casually motivated and unapologetically imitative, as he studied other authors' works and drew inspiration from them. Now, though, his work is consistently called inventive and original, never derivative.
Saunders believes that his scientific background is responsible for much of what critics have labeled "originality" or "experimentation" in his fiction. In another review, he describes himself as "working inefficiently, with flawed tools, in a mode I don't have sufficient background to really understand. Like if you put a welder to designing dresses." Saunders also credits his engineering work experience with broadening his knowledge of injustice, developing his opinions about the United States' place in the world, and deepening his moral stance and political motivations in both life and literature. Saunders has noted, remarking on his unconventional background in relation to his MFA classmates, "Fiction is open to whoever comes in the door, as long as you come in energetically, and so I had a feeling there was room for me." Readers will feel themselves fortunate that there is, indeed, more than enough room for Saunders's idiosyncratic talents.
Photograph by Caitlin Saunders
This article was originally published in January 2013, and has been updated for the
January 2014 paperback release.
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