George Saunders delivers Unbound keynote address on his life, work

The award-winning author spoke on his life, language and “Lincoln in the Bardo.”

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The 2019 Unbound Book Festival commenced with a book reading and discussion with George Saunders at the Missouri Theatre on April 20. Saunders was interviewed by author Monica Ferrell and gave a reading of his recent novel “Lincoln in the Bardo.” The event was free and open to the public.

The Unbound Book Festival was founded in 2016 by local authors, including Alex George. Unbound board member Stephanie Williams opened the event with a speech on the history of the festival.

“This festival was born five years ago when a small group of local writers, educators, librarians and publishing professionals gathered in Alex George’s living room,” Williams said. “The growth of Unbound since then would not be possible without the engagement of you…We aim to be a festival for this community, we need to be a festival by this community.”

Dianne Lynch, the president of Stephens College, then introduced the two authors.

Saunders started by giving a reading from his Booker Prize-winning first novel “Lincoln in the Bardo,” a work of historical fiction that follows Abe Lincoln comforting his dead son the night he is buried. While it may sound simple, the book incorporates primary documents and is heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhist traditions.

“It’s complicated,” Saunders said. “Explaining the book takes four hours and you can read it in three.”

After the reading, Saunders was interviewed on the ways his approach to writing has changed over the years.

“I thought art was, ‘I know so much. Shut up while I tell you,’” Saunders said. “But what I knew from real life was that [art is] intimate conversation. ‘Dear Reader, I love you. I respect you. You’re smarter than me. Let me try and keep you on the line.’”

Saunders finds that dense prose loses the reader’s interest and respect.

“If you say to someone, ‘How do I get to the hospital?’ and they say ‘A place where various sick people are kept while getting better, well that’s interesting, there’s some roads you must take…’ you feel like, ‘You’re not respecting me,’” Saunders said. “That’s the whole process...cutting things down where you’re communicating the most respect.”

Originally, Saunders’ career didn’t begin in a writing program, but rather in engineering school. After years of working various jobs in places like Sumatra, Indonesia, Saunders found the grind to help his writing.

“By the time [my wife and I] got married, we didn’t have any money and we were both just working,” Saunders said “A lot of my natural grace was getting sapped out of me, so that of course became my subject matter.”

MU sophomore Maddy Creach enjoyed Saunders’ talk.

“I thought it was nice,” Creach said. “I liked how he talked about when he writes, he tries to be respectful to his readers and not undermine them.”

After the conversation, Saunders fielded a few questions from the audience. One student asked Saunders some tips on becoming a better writer.

“If you pay attention enough to anything, it’s interesting,” Saunders said. “Things are boring when you phone it in. There’s nothing boring about any life except we think we know what excitement is. If you say Frank was a jerk, that’s an easy dismissive thing. Then you say Frank is a jerk because he snapped at a young barista… Is Frank still a jerk? Yeah, but he’s an interesting jerk.”

Edited by Janae McKenzie | jmckenzie@themaneater.com

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