Award-winning author reads, speaks at Buskirk-Chumley


Author George Saunders speaks to a crowd of students and faculty Tuesday at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater. Saunders read from his recently published novel, "Lincoln in the Bardo," answered questions from the audience and signed books after the talk. Maddie Lucia

Before author George Saunders even stepped onstage, he received a warm welcome from the audience, who applauded his newest work, “Lincoln in the Bardo."

“If you would indulge me and buy three books,” Saunders said as he entered the stage.

Author George Saunders gave a reading of his work and spoke about writing Tuesday night at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater. 

Saunders is known for his short stories and unconventional, witty and eccentric writing style. His short story collection, “Tenth of December,” was a National Book Award finalist, and his first novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” came out earlier this year.

Saunders began the event with a reading of “Victory Lap,” a short story that shows the inner thoughts of a self-obsessed high school romantic, as well as those of a track runner living with authoritative, order-obsessed parents.

“He’s one of the most influential writers writing today,” Director of the College of Arts & Humanities Institute Jonathan Elmer said. “He puts you in the minds of his characters by having you hear their voices.”

Saunders called this style “third-person ventriloquist,” in which he assumes the voice and persona of a character without breaking into first person.

Saunders said that no matter how vulgar or unpleasant a character’s thoughts and voice come out, he always finds something to love.

“He has such a keen sense of empathy with people who we would not initially think to relate our own experiences to,” English professor Stephanie Li said. “He tries to understand the hurtful, the negative actions people take and contextualize them.”

George Saunders' recently published novel "Lincoln in the Bardo" was sold by Boxcar Books during Tuesday's event. Saunders signed books after his talk at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater. Maddie Lucia

Following the reading, there was a question-and-answer session with the audience. Saunders answered questions about his place in the literary canon, his influences and how performing comedic characters inspired his narrative voice.

“I love Tolstoy, but is there anything I know about life that he doesn’t?” Saunders said in response to a question about how his influences work in his writing.

Throughout the event, the audience laughed at Saunders' wit and dry humor. After the reading and Q&A, Saunders signed books and talked with audience members. 

“He’s very funny about the absurdities of the world that we live in,” Elmer said. “But he’s also very gentle at some level. That gentleness and feel for humanity make him appealing to readers.”

Saunders has won numerous awards for his fiction since his short story “The 400-Pound CEO” was first published in 1994. Since then, he has released four short story collections, a children’s book, novellas and nonfiction, and he's won numerous awards for them.

Getting students, faculty and community members of Bloomington excited about reading fulfills the mission of the Department of English, Li said.

“It brings people together by reading wonderful stories and participating in a wonderful conversation,” Li said.

Saunders met with graduate and undergraduate students Wednesday morning to discuss creative writing and answer questions about his own work.

“He’s very approachable,” Elmer said. “One of the things people want him to do when he comes to their campus is to have him spend some time with students,” Elmer said. “He’s been very open to that.”

Saunders is appearing as the Susan D. Gubar Annual Lecture and the College of Arts & Humanities Institute Distinguished Visitor. Past appearances in these positions include Juan Felipe Herrera, Margaret Atwood and Junot Díaz. 

Elmer said it’s powerful when people from different parts of the community come together like they did for Saunders.

“It’s good for undergraduates to see their professors there, and for townspeople to see members of the academic community sharing their space,” Elmer said. “It produces a sense of belonging.”

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