The One Book That Unstuck My Writing

There are only two blurbs in the hardback of George Saunders’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, one by Thomas Pynchon and the other by Garrison Keillor. I bought the book because of the blurbs, and because it was on the remainder pile at the college Barnes and Noble, so it was $3.99. I was a shiftless and super shifty undergrad with no money for anything—I was an international student and worked the graveyard shift at the computer lab. For much of my late teens and twenties, I daydreamed I’d meet Pynchon, or Keillor, and that they’d recognize what a special talent I was, and how much we had in common, and they’d take under their wing and insist to their powerful agents and publishers that they take my brilliant writing and make me famous and rich.

I owe so much of my writing life to George Saunders that even this introductory bit is lifted from him, I just realized, even as I started writing it. Because I was going to begin by sharing how often I fantasized about meeting writers I admired, and it’s super common, this fantasy—writers meeting their idols, and then the idol recognizes your genius and you become best buds, and the idol lifts you from whatever dire circumstances you happen to be in, and your life is perfect from then on. I totally wanted to start with that—with confessing how often I thought of meeting Saunders—before I realized why I wanted to start with that.

And then I remembered that Saunders had shared the exact same anecdote about working as a doorman and fantasizing that some rich Hollywood person was going to recognize his genius and showering him with money and respect.

The whole reason I wanted to share all of that is because eventually I did meet George Saunders, during my year as a visiting professor in Whitman College. We had a long conversation, there were only five people at the table, and Saunders ended up being as extraordinary—as kind, as funny, as observant—as his best stories. We did not become best buds. He did, however, give me his cell phone number, I forget why, but I lost it when I switched my service, and it’s not like I would have called or texted him, though I did the next day because the hotel he was staying in has these oil paintings tucked away that rival the one in Park and Recreation’s Pawnee City Hall for inappropriateness. I thought he’d get a kick of them. He did. He talked to my wife about how much he was loving Tolstoy’s Resurrection, and my wife and I speculated later that night. Maybe he’s writing a novel. He is. It’s coming out in February. The household is super excited.

Lots of people are, with good reason: If he can do what he does with the story, can you imagine what he can do when he goes long?

But that’s also beyond unfair. I’ll love the novel no matter what, because I love Saunders, but Anton Chekhov kept trying to write long and never quite succeeded, and nobody’s bemoaning the dude, just like nobody (I hope) is bemoaning Alice Munro. It’s OK to be so brilliant at one form that you change the rules of that form pretty much forever and then do sort of OK in another genre. That’s where I’m at with Saunders: He’s a genius who has changed the way a story is constructed, and who has found these ways to bend the form so that it’s funnier, fiercer, stranger, and more direct than it’s ever been.

What I really mean to say is that he showed me how to be funnier, fiercer, stranger, and more direct than I had ever been as a writer.

I had spent much of my pre-Saunders time trying to impress. I worked every sentence until it felt perfect, but I rarely worried about story, or plot, or people, or what I was trying to say about living in the very weird world we find ourselves in. I was obsessed with Vladimir Nabokov (and with Pynchon) and so much of what I wrote was Nabokovian in the worst way—coy, affected, densely allusive, deeply preoccupied with making (wholly imaginary) devoted readers think they had missed something important. Nothing happened. Nothing mattered.

And then I read Saunders. I loved the narrators with their broken prose and their broken hearts, with their innate desire to do good in trying circumstances. I loved that the world of the stories was recognizable but distorted. Every character worked—I mean that they went to a place and earned money and stressed about money. Mostly, I loved how the stories moved from funny to sad. How graceful they were, even when their grace came clad in deliberately graceless language.

I’ve been copying Saunders ever since. I do all the things he tries to do, and I hope the theft isn’t glaringly apparent, but I’m OK if it is.


One last thing: everything I just told you I also told Saunders, in this incoherent gush of words after the reading he did the day after our dinner. He was trapped at the signing table and signed my books and listened to the whole thing, the whole story about finding his book and discovering all sorts of heretofore unimagined possibilities in fiction. It dawned on me that it must be tiring, to hear the same kind of praise over and over, to be told that your books had saved a total stranger’s writing life. I was expecting him to say thank you, maybe the kind of embarrassed thank-you that is sincere but also meant to shoo you off. There were lots of people in line, waiting to get their books signed, maybe also waiting to tell Saunders pretty much the same thing I had just said. Instead, what I got was one of the kindest smiles I’ve ever gotten in my life, and the best most sincere reply to that sort of gushing seemingly-hyperbolic gratitude.

I said, “Your book saved my life.”

He said, “Isn’t it wonderful when that happens?”

best-worst-americanJuan Martinez was born in Bucaramanga, Colombia, and has since lived in Orlando, Florida, and Las Vegas, Nevada. He now lives in Chicago with his wife, the writer Sarah Kokernot, and their son and two cats. He’s an assistant professor at Northwestern University. He is the author of Best Worst American: Stories and his work has appeared in Glimmer Train, McSweeney’s, Ecotone, Huizache, TriQuarterly, Conjunctions, National Public Radio’s Selected Shorts, Norton’s Sudden Fiction Latino, and elsewhere. Visit and say hi at


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