George Saunders Shares His Master Class on the Russian Short Story

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George Saunders is an award-winning, bestselling author as well as a highly regarded creative writing teacher. For the last twenty years, Saunders has been teaching a class on the Russian short story to his MFA students at Syracuse University. In his new book, A SWIM IN A POND IN THE RAIN: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading and Life (Random House HC and ebook, Random House Audio) Saunders blends his writing and professorial skills into an engaging narrative that walks readers through his favorite short stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol to demonstrate how great fiction has the ability to move and shape us.

Saunders shares: “The book came out of a moment a few falls ago—I’d just come back to teaching after some time off and, after a good class, standing there in the empty classroom, was struck by how much teaching at Syracuse had meant to me over the years. It’s been, really, the foundation of my creative life. (Teach a little, write a little; teach a great story, resolve to do better in my own work.) In one of the classes I teach (one I developed back in the late 1990s and have been—I hope—improving ever since), we read some nineteenth-century Russian stories, as writers—that is, with an eye toward technique.

“So, I thought it would be nice to put some of what I’d learned from teaching that class down on paper. I had this big notebook I updated each year, and figured I’d just, you know, type those notes up. However, as we say in the creative writing world: ‘Ha, ha, ha, stupid!’ That . . . did not happen. What did happen, though, was a two-year adventure in refining my thinking that took me deeply into these stories and fired me up all over again about the short story form.

“One of the ideas in the book is that, when we read a story, we read with the same mind we use to read the world. So, concentrating on a story and the way we’re responding to it can tell us a lot about ourselves. Reading a story is, really, an exercise in believing that other people exist and are valid—the writer of the story, but also those fictive people. We get to practice caring about some people we don’t know—good practice for real life.”

In the A SWIM IN A POND IN THE RAIN audiobook, Saunders narrates his essays, and the original Russian short stories are read by a celebrity cast: “In the Cart,” by Anton Chekhov, read by Phylicia Rashad; “The Singers,” by Ivan Turgenev, read by Nick Offerman; “The Darling,” by Anton Chekhov, read by Glenn Close; “Master and Man,” by Leo Tolstoy, read by Keith David; “The Nose,” by Nikolai Gogol, read by Rainn Wilson; “Gooseberries,” by Anton Chekhov, read by BD Wong; and “Alyosha the Pot,” by Leo Tolstoy, read by Renée Elise Goldsberry

“These are wonderful stories, each in a slightly different tonality, so part of the fun of the casting was trying to calibrate reader and story,” Saunders comments. “The challenge for the readers, I’d imagine, is that the stories are deeply emotional but are also coming out of a distinctly different, nineteenth century, literary moment – so, in short, we needed great actors. And did we ever get them.

“The fun part, for me, was connecting with these artists whose work I’d loved and getting the chance to collaborate with them (albeit indirectly). Some (Phylicia Rashad, Keith David, Renee Elise Goldsberry) I’ve only had occasion to admire from afar, and others I’d worked with before. Nick Offerman and Rainn Wilson appeared (brilliantly) on the audiobook for LINCOLN IN THE BARDO, and I’d worked with Glenn Close, who played Aunt Bernie in an Amazon pilot of my story ‘Sea Oak,’ (and from whom I learned so much about artistic courage). A few years back, I heard BD Wong do a jaw-droppingly great reading of my story ‘My Chivalric Fiasco’ as part of Selected Shorts.

“So, it’s a great celebration, not only of these stories, but of the craft of acting. So inspiring to hear the spirit of Chekhov, Turgenev, Gogol, and Tolstoy coming through these huge contemporary talents, who made each story entirely new again.”

George Saunders is the author of ten books, including the novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the Man Booker Prize, and the story collections Pastoralia and Tenth of December, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. He has received fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 2006 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. In 2013 he was awarded the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and was included in Time’s list of the one hundred most influential people in the world.

Posted: January 12, 2021