For the Savannah Book Festival’s 12th-year opening address, which coincidentally falls on Valentine’s Day, the festival has scheduled a rare couple’s address featuring George and Paula Saunders.
“It’s a literary Sonny and Cher!” as George framed it in an interview with Do Savannah.
Their trip to Savannah, the couple’s first, will only be the second time they’ve presented together. Paula’s debut novel, “The Distance Home,” was published in August of last year and George’s latest publication, “Fox 8,” hit the shelves in November. Their joint presentation will be moderated by SCAD professor, author and SBF Board Member Jonathan Rabb.
“We did it once in Greece this summer,” George said. “I interviewed her on stage. She is just brilliant. I interviewed her on stage in a little bookstore. This is the biggest venue, I think. I am looking forward to it a lot.”
Hooked on writing
George, a prolific, sundry writer and humorist, is most widely known for his novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” which won the 2017 Man Booker prize. He has authored nine books altogether, including a range of short stories, essays and children’s books. He’s won a number of literary awards and been a finalist for the National Book Award.
“Writing itself is the only thing I’ve ever been any good at or felt any confidence about or had strong opinions about,” George said. “When I started writing, I was just writing short stories. Then the other kinds of writing resulted because I felt my talent was a little limited. I thought if I tried things on either side of my main focus, it might broaden me out a bit.
"I still think, of all those things, I am better at fiction. It’s almost like I am trying to shake some additional talent out of myself by doing these other kinds of writings.”
For a number of years, he wrote a humor column for The Guardian. Two individual pieces he had written would later merge into inspiration for “Fox 8.” One was from the point of view of an intelligent dog and his perspective of humans. The second was about a high school evaluation, which was littered with intentional misspellings. “Fox 8” became a mixture of those stories with an intelligent fox who has learned to speak “Yuman” by spying on a human family.
“The fun of it, really, for me, I am always looking for a hook,” George said. “Kind of a self hook. Something that would make it fun to do it every day. Just some little fun thing. For this, bad spelling was a riot.
“In that process, I found that those misspellings had a kind of tendency to pull the reader into the story because it makes the reader slow down a bit. Then there’s that moment of satisfying pop, when you decode the sentence. That was really the way in. From there, as it always happens with stories, you go in for one reason and stay for a different reason.”
Paula’s way into her debut novel began much further back in time. The Saunders met while working on their master’s degrees in creative writing at Syracuse University. Paula had begun to explore family-oriented themes in her writing then. She shelved those ideas for a number of years for different reasons.
“Even back in graduate school, I was trying to write these stories and approach this work,” Paula said. “I had a lot of obstacles at that point, because my parents still being alive and not wanting to go through that whole thing. And also, with two small children at home at that point, it was beyond me to do the work I needed to do for a book and also be a wife and mother and do that whole thing and care for my parents.
"It took me a while to get to the material, but the material has always been what it is.”
Set in the 1960s South Dakota plains, where Paula grew up, “The Distance Home” is an examination of the nuanced dynamics of family life through the eyes and experiences of three siblings. An admittedly semi-biographical novel, Paula drew on her very real life experience as a young person, but also her experience as a mother.
“As far as the book goes, I think the main heart of the book, for me, is the way it looks at competition and aggression and success and failure, that kind of dichotomy. Winning and losing is so much at the heart of our culture, and is so harmful to all of us,” Paula explained. “That to me is the heart of the book.
“When I talk about it, I talk about it as small violences,” she continued. “That’s what it is to me. It’s the language you use with each other. It’s the undercutting tone you use with each other. It’s the dismissal. It’s the not paying attention where attention needs to be paid. It’s those kind of small violences that give us the tone of what’s accepted and what’s not accepted and what you need to be.”
'A more just place'
George says he's learned from his wife all along and is thrilled to see her getting her dues in the literary world.
“I’ve just benefited from it, because she’s such a smart person,” George said. “When we met, she was much more worldly than I was. She had been married once before and traveled a lot. She had better manners and a better sense of what it meant to be in the world. I’ve learned from her all these 31 years.
“You live beside this brilliant person all of your life and to finally see the world go, ‘Oh, you’re a brilliant person,’ and I am like, 'Yeah, hello!'" he added with a laugh. "It really makes the whole world seem like a more just place, actually.”