George Saunders is one of America’s master storytellers. Since his 1996 debut he’s become known for his short stories -- for his distinctive use of language, and an intriguing blend of the horrific and the humorous. In early January The New York Times Magazine proclaimed that his new collection, Tenth of December, is "The Best Book You’ll Read This Year." George Saunders joins us in the Soundcheck studio to share some of his favorite songs, tell us about his time in a jazz fusion band, and explain how his new book is like a concept album.
George Saunders, on his Soundcheck playlist:
º Steve Goodman - "The Dutchman"
"When I was struggling to write my first book, Steve Goodman did a seminar and he said something that changed my whole trajectory: ’If you have the impulse that your work sucks, that is so great, because it means you still have taste.' That feeling of revulsion or disappointment that you have is what will lead you -- because all you have to do is look honestly at it and say, OK, how is it falling short? And somehow that got in my head, and it was very hopeful.”
º John Prine - "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore"
"I always loved [this song] because it's so frankly political and it doesn't make any apologies, and it's funny. It was of course the early '70s so I remember songs by Graham Nash and Kansas that were overtly political. The other thing that was always powerful for me was on the first Chicago album -- there's an outtake from the [1968 Democratic National] Convention riot. My friend I used to listen to this over and over...There’s something growing up outside of Chicago, knowing that all this stuff was just a few miles away -- [it] was very politicizing. So this [John Prine] song, the first time I heard it, I just thought it was great.”
º The Dezurik Sisters - 'The Arizona Yodeler'
“I teach at Syracuse, and I use this in a little mini-class on escalation -- which to me is one of the prime skills in storytelling. You have to get the water to boil. So when we talk about this song, we play it 5 or 6 times, and we talk about the way that an element is introduced, and is not allowed to sit there statically. Nothing is allowed to flatline. Everything has to be constantly headed upwards.’”
º Wilco - 'One Sunday Morning'
“I find that to write, it helps just to be just a little happy. So if I’m not feeling it, I’ll drive into town on an errand and put something in. And lately, it's Wilco, 'One Sunday Morning.' I listen to that and I'm ready to go."
º Middle Brother - 'Million Dollar Bill'
"I have two daughters who are big music fans so they [introduced me to] Middle Brother. This song is such a beautiful piece of writing because a simple idea gets introduced and then pop-pop-pop, three little manifestations. Very original."