Discussing the art of storytelling with award-winning author George Saunders

Thursday’s guest speaker at the St. James School offered a very unusual scenario for a large, mixed audience of 5th and 6th graders, plus parents, local college students, and community members.

After reading from his first children’s book, “The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip,” an award-winning short story, author George Saunders said, “Once there was a dog with two heads.”

As Saunders explained, the art of storytelling begins with “a situation that you want to know more about.” He invited the kids to take the story from there, asking what they’d want to know about a two-headed dog, and a few small hands shot up.

Why does the dog have two heads? Do the two heads get along? If they don’t, why don’t they? Does their owner like one head more than the other? Why? Which head gets more food? Ideas about the two-headed dog’s life poured in.

“You guys are actually writing a book right now,” Saunders announced, urging his listeners to “honor your own curiosity.”

Impressive turnout, despite spring break vacation

Father Sean Mullen of St. James sponsor St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (where Mullen is rector) was behind the visit from Saunders, which included sandwiches with the author in the St. James dining room and an interactive talk in the school’s 5th-grade classroom.

“I’ve been reaching out to George for years as a fan,” Mullen told NewsWorks after the event. When Mullen saw that the author of seven books was heading to Philadelphia for a reading of his latest work at the Free Library, Mullen invited Saunders to stop at St. James with his children’s book, and the author agreed.

Mullen was so thrilled to schedule the visit that he completely forgot it was slated for the middle of Holy Week and the school’s pre-Easter spring break. But in the end, the vacation didn’t stop students from attending, with many avid questions for the author.

Mullen introduced Saunders to the crowd, which also included a small group of Swarthmore students in a fiction-writing program. “When we call Mr. Saunders a genius, we’re being serious,” Mullen said.

Questions flowed from the kids before the adults got into the act. The middle-schoolers wanted to know what books Saunders read when he was a child (Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain was a big inspiration, given to him by a pretty nun he “had a crush on”), and if he had any talents other than writing (“bad guitar-playing”).

“Why do you have to go to school?” one little girl asked.

“Because there are people inside of you that want to come out,” Saunders replied, explaining how teachers can help shape your future.

Saunders, trained as an engineer, shared his career history, which ranged from foreign oil fields to work as a Beverly Hills doorman. In his late twenties, he followed his true calling as a writer, and went on to win the National Magazine Award for fiction four times. He is currently a professor at Syracuse University.

Why read books at all? 

An adult fan who asked about the genesis of a particularly haunting image in one of Saunders’ stories learned the “embarrassing” truth: the image was straight out of a bizarre dream the author had. The writer shared his personal process for writing and revising, and advised aspiring authors to secure an agent to break into the business.

Saunders engaged the kids on the question of why we read books at all. Partly, it’s to go back in time, or to seek “an alternate experience that makes you a bigger human being,” with the book’s story helping you to see your place in a larger world.

After the session, Saunders signed books for many admiring fans and admitted that fielding questions from kids and adults at the same time was a somewhat unusual experience, but the key was just to listen to everyone.

Saunders was glad he made time for St. James in his busy Philadelphia visit.

“I’m in love with the kids and the school,” he told NewsWorks, after encouraging the class to finish the story of the two-headed dog, and send it to him.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.