The first time I heard of George Saunders, he was being talked about on a podcast by the talented American author Joshua Ferris, who was saying that when he first discovered Saunders, he didn't want to read him: "He was far too infectious and far too novel and I wanted to get away from that because I knew that sooner or later I'd be writing really bad George Saunders rip-offs."
This is something writers sometimes say about other writers, and something they're sometimes right about. Hemingway's greatest legacy is generations of terrible imitators and Kerouac's influence has been at least as bad, maybe worse.
Was it possible this guy I had never heard of was similarly influential?
The answer was so obvious, minutes later, seconds after Ferris began to read Saunders' 1500-word story Adams, that I paused the podcast after the first paragraph and said, out loud, "Wow," which is something I never do.
I can't remember how long afterwards that I read Joel Lovell's 2013, 6000-word feature article, published in The New York Times magazine, "George Saunders has written the best book you'll read this year", but I do know that the article was published in early January.
The book in question was Tenth of December, a collection of short stories that is, among other things, so consistently funny and entertaining, so prohibitive of any attempt to adequately describe it, so expansive of our ability to see the world as something more than it is, that it is hard to read it without a sense of sadness at its impending end.
The book was published 17 years after Civilwarland in Bad Decline, the book that had first made Joshua Ferris not want to read any more Saunders, and in the space of those 17 years, Saunders had become one of the most lauded authors in America.
Four years later, this year, he has written his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, a book he's been thinking about for 20 years, a magical book that's typically Saundersian in its ability to do the absolute unexpected, and a book he felt he might never write.
He says of it: "If you've been playing guitar all your life and someone says, 'I want you to make an album but leave the guitar outside, we've got some instruments in here,' you might at first say, 'F*** that, I'm too afraid, I made my name on that guitar,' but maybe you'd say, 'Well, life is short, if I f*** up and spend three years making a dumb album, that's all right.'"
The opening paragraph of the short story Adams - the one Joshua Ferris read on the podcast - goes as follows:
"I never could stomach Adams and then one day he's standing in my kitchen, in his underwear. Facing in the direction of my kids' room! So I wonk him in the back of the head and down he goes. When he stands up, I wonk him again and down he goes. Then I roll him down the stairs into the early-spring muck and am like, 'If you ever, again, I swear to God, I don't even know what to say, you miserable f***'."
"Wonk" was what struck me first. That Saunders had dropped us straight into the middle of this alarming, confusing, violent scene, and then destroyed almost all our expectations of how such a scene might work, almost with a single word.
The rest of the story was equally unsettling and funny. For a long time afterwards, I thought about it. After a while, days and even weeks would go by when I didn't think about it.
I read as much Saunders as I could. Along with his short stories, he has written incredible, thoughtful non-fiction. Last year, he wrote an agenda-shaping article for The New Yorker, titled "Who are all these Trump supporters?" in which he took the same approach as he does to his fiction: being so specific about the people he's writing about, a position that the sort of poisonous generalisations that dominate US politics could not hope to hold.
His literary worldview is based on revision. Roughly: revision is at the heart of good writing and also at the heart of good living. Less roughly: revision leads to specificity, which leads to compassion, which leads to kindness, which leads to a less shitty world.
You're A journalist, say. A big event's approaching, a literary festival for instance, and you're handed a list of names and asked, "Anyone catch your eye?"
A lot of names catch your eye. But, after a while you yawn and stretch with one arm and you scroll idly through your Twitter feed, wondering about the interminability of this particular list and lists in general.
Then you see the name. You have so many questions, but more than that, you just want to be, for at least a few minutes, in the company of someone who, for years, has so shifted your view of the world, so entertained you, made you happy and sad, often simultaneously.
You are in a relationship with this person, and you would otherwise never have a chance to deepen that relationship, except for during your interminably long question at his writer's festival event.
By way of introduction you find yourself saying: "I love your writing but in trying to reduce that down to whatever we're going to talk about here today, it can't be "as much as", can it? It has to be "less than"?
He says: "It's an exciting place to start because it's pretty frank. There are certainly moments of assessment where the thinking about it is a little more analytical and linear but yeah, I don't know, I'll leave it up to you."
"I don't know either," you reply. "I just wanted to call you up and say I'm a big fan and I don't know what was going to happen from there."
You giggle, uncomfortably and for too long, and you feel embarrassed because you're 40 years old.
You have a nice conversation, but it's not exactly a dinner party. One hour and three minutes later, Saunders says: "The me that's talking to you right now is actually not the same one who wrote the stories. The cumulative personality that shows up in a work of fiction, I couldn't reproduce it right now because it takes me so f***in' long to do it."
You knew that of course - you're not an idiot - but you can't help but feel a little bit sad about it.
George Saunders will appear in three events at the Auckland Writers Festival,
May 19-May 21. See writersfestival.co.nz