By Greyson Scudder
On Thursday, Feb. 22, George Saunders, author of “Tenth of December” and “Lincoln in the Bardo,” visited Millsaps. Saunders participated in a book signing, before also doing a reading with some faculty and students, all as part of the English Department’s Visiting Writers Series.
Saunders read from his novel “Lincoln in the Bardo,” set just following the death of Lincoln’s son. After doing a reading, in which Saunders spoke the part of Lincoln while various Millsaps faculty and students read for other characters. Saunders also answered questions from the audience. Among the most important of Saunders’ main speaking points was the “idea.” He said, that one does not need a huge idea to write a novel, but a small one, and build from there.
I did not want to write a book about Lincoln, Saunders said, but rather, a book with Lincoln in it.
Though he is known as a short story writer, and now a novelist, Saunders has reached out to his many fans in a variety of ways.
“A couple years ago, [Saunders’] commencement speech came out, that he gave at Syracuse…and it touched me so much,” said Kelsey Stone, a Junior religious studies major, when asked how she became familiar with Saunders. “I quoted him, and he has been on my radar ever since then.”
Saunders was named one of TIME Magazine’s most influential people of 2013, and his book, “Tenth of December,” released 2013, was a finalist for the National Book Award of 2013 as well as a winner of both the Folio Prize and the Story Prize. In addition, Saunders was rewarded both the Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowships in 2006, and was a recipient of an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2009.
“I don’t know of another author that talks about the creative process like George Saunders does,” Dr. Michael Pickard said, an associate professor of English and a contact for the Visiting Writers Series.
Stone agreed, recalling from the event Saunders saying that he was heavily influenced by Buddhism. “He was talking about how you need to be empathetic with your characters, and good writing will put the character next to you.” Stone said.
The Visiting Writers Series partnered with Lemuria Bookstore to host the event. This partnership was the result of both a matter of good timing, and also an example of the importance of good relations with community partners, said Pickard.
The goal of the English Department’s series is to bring writers from both in the Jackson community, and around the world to Millsaps to participate in a reading. The series attempts to bring in writers of different genres, such as fiction and non-fiction, but also of different types, such as poets, authors, and playwrights. This can happen through several different ways
Saunders’ visit is just one of many reputable authors, playwrights, and poets that the Visiting Writers Series will host in the coming semester. Among the list of upcoming speakers are well-known poet and critic Stephen Cushman, who will also be hosting a workshop for interested writers on Mar. 27 and 28. Claudia Rankine, a nationally recognized poet, also made plans to come for the spring semester, but was forced to reschedule for the fall semester, Pickard said.
In addition, Millsaps and the Visiting Writers Series have partnered in an event at the Eudora Welty House, where the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and Jackson native Beth Henley will be doing a reading, usually set in March. This is not the first time that Millsaps has had a star-studded calendar of speakers.
“Over the last three semesters we’ve had a Pulitzer prize winning author, two MacArthur fellows who are writers,” said Pickard.
Stone also commended the series, citing Saunders and the upcoming speaker, Rankine, as some examples of important writers.
Not only is this a good opportunity for Millsaps and the Jackson community, but also for school recruitment. The Visiting Writers Series lineup is a serious draw for prospective students, according to Pickard.
“Just the opportunity to have [the authors] here, and then we get tons of people here, I think it’s a really good thing that Millsaps does,” Stone said.
Another feature of the Visiting Writers Series is the effect on the community around Millsaps. For example, a group of high school kids from the Mississippi School of Arts were in attendance for the Saunders reading.
“It seemed like a lot of very eclectic people…in terms of Millsaps, and just people I know in Jackson,” Stone said when asked about the crowd that attended the Saunders reading.
All events put on through the series are open to the public, according to its webpage.