On-the-Job Training

For critically acclaimed satirist George Saunders, the path to greatness hasn't been a straight shot. Before publishing his debut collection of short stories, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, in 1996, he'd worked as a convenience store clerk, a Beverly Hills doorman, a guitar player in a Texas cover band, an oil field worker in Sumatra and a slaughterhouse knuckle-puller.

But lucky for American letters, and for Saunders, these underpaid, thankless endeavors gave him something to write about. "These jobs taught me," he says, "what it feels like to be a bottom-feeder in a capitalist society."

Exaggerated tales about Saunders's work experiences appear in both CivilWarLand and his more recent short story collection, Pastoralia, which together explore the bleak and darkly humorous underbelly of a soulless capitalist society located in a near-future America. The works' protagonists include a theme-park caveman impersonator, the male version of a Hooters waitress (who works in a restaurant called Joysticks) and a tour guide at a battle re-enactment site, to name a few. The author most recently published a children's book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip.

Not surprisingly, Saunders's personality is as quirky as his employment history. Listing his influences as Thomas Wolfe, Jack Kerouac, Monty Python, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver and Dr. Seuss, Saunders describes his writing style as "Mark Twain on acid…[if he] was 70 percent less funny and articulate, and was raised on the South Side of Chicago, and had a bad toothache that was preventing his stories from really cohering aesthetically."

Saunders teaches creative writing at Syracuse University and is working on a second children's book. His plan was to write something along the lines of Babar or Curious George, and then "live out the rest of [his] life on the income from stuffed animals," he says, but things haven't gone according to plan. "Unfortunately, the book took a weird turn and is now all about ethnic cleansing. So no stuffed animals are forthcoming."

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Lisa Levy