The literary career of George Saunders has been almost as fanciful as the premises of his stories. On the strength of just two collections of oddly compelling dystopian short stories -- "Civil War Land in Bad Decline" and "Pastoralia" -- Saunders has become one of the most esteemed writers in America: He's won the National Magazine Award for fiction four times, is regularly published in the New Yorker and receives glowing blurbs from Thomas Pynchon, Garrison Keillor, Tobias Wolf and even Salon. Once a geophysical engineer/frustrated writer in his 30s from working-class Chicago, he made the curious discovery that he could get away with just telling simple, weird stories; for instance, his new book, "The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil," deals with seven characters taking turns inhabiting a nation so small it can only accommodate one citizen at a time. But the discovery was a long time coming. In this interview (Real Audio, 29:22) from "Readings and Conversations" -- a literary radio show put on by the Lannan cultural foundation in Santa Fe, N.M. -- Saunders talks to Michael Silverblatt about his development as a writer. He says he spent years trying to become Hemingway for contemporary America -- "Nick walked into the Wal-Mart. It was pleasant" -- before he found his authentic voice in a few limericks he wrote out of boredom. As Silverblatt puts it, Saunders allowed himself to say, "I am going to laugh at fat people and retards, I am. See what you can do about it, but I'm going to throw these things around so much that you're not going to know which direction truth is going to come flying at you from."
In a longer reading (Real Audio, 48:16), also from Lannan, Saunders presents bits and pieces of work from his magazine writing, including a hilarious New Yorker "Shouts and Murmurs" story from 2003 that posits a new reality TV series titled "How Weird Is That?" in which "a group of bureaucrats who have never themselves fought in a war are locked in the 'Decision House' and allowed to select any country in the world for America to go to war with, for reasons they must invent on the spot."
-- Ira Boudway