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Book Club Party: Tenth of December

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Our little book club here at work seemed to explode in February, with lots of new people wanting to join in and read with us. Today’s wrap up of our experience reading George Saunder’s Tenth of December comes from new book club member and Copy Chief/Articles Editor at Living, Myles McDonnell.

When in doubt, go classic. No one ever complains with cheese, crackers and a bit of prosecco.

I seem to be an inordinately lucky guy, at least when it comes to Book Club. Not only was my first MSL Book Club subject a great one, but we were fortunate enough to have the book’s editor join us: Random House’s Andy Ward, who also co-writes the superb cooking-and-just-life blog Dinner, a Love Story.

Andy started off by asking if any of us hated Tenth of December. No one raised a hand, but he told us the reaction to this book on Amazon and other mass-review venues has been extremely polarized, with most readers either adoring it or not enjoying it at all. He had a piece of advice for readers who didn’t take to Tenth of December and are wondering what everyone else is so excited about: Check out the audiobook, read by the author himself. He said he knows of several people who’ve been converted upon hearing Saunders give life to his characters.

Asked about his role in the process, Andy called his relationship with Saunders an editor’s dream. He said that he’s not doing a lot of rewriting with an author of this caliber, and instead more “steering and shaping”—asking questions and pointing things out. Saunders, he says, seeks this kind of feedback actively and tends to act on it very quickly.

And then he pulled out his trump card: George Saunders himself was in his office at that moment, awaiting our call! Among the topics he covered over the phone with us—in an almost inconceivably friendly and down-to-earth fashion:

Andy Ward, right, and book club members on the phone with George Saunders.

  • The importance of the order of the stories in the book. Saunders said he spends a great deal of time deciding this, using index cards with each story’s title and first and last lines and moving them around and about until he feels he has the right mix. Andy added that they settled pretty quickly on opening with “Victory Lap” and closing with the book’s title story, both of which felt suitably powerful for those positions, and then spent a great deal more time settling what would connect the two.
  • Our questions for Saunders mostly seemed to settle around two stories in particular, “Escape from Spiderhead” and “The Semplica-Girl Diaries”—both of which feature, as many of Saunders’s stories do, some seriously dark subject matter. Saunders said he doesn’t think of himself as dark (Andy agreed, and he certainly didn’t come across as anything but cheerful in our conversation). Instead, he said, he feels we all simply have dark moments, and he finds his best avenues for writing come from exploring those places. But he added that with Tenth of December, he wanted to find a way to move beyond those explorations to look into how average people can respond to, and even rise above, those dark moments.
  •  “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” took Saunders 15 years to write, and at one point was almost 200 pages long—novel-length, in fact, before slowly being pared down to its current size.
  •  Asked how long it had taken him to come up with the memorable drug names that feature so heavily in “Spiderhead” (Verbaluce™, Darkenfloxx™, etc.), Saunders said they pretty much just came to him fully formed: “I must have worked in a past life in advertising.” If he had to think about any of them too long, he said, he knew they weren’t the right ones to use.

We probably could have gone on for hours like this, but all too soon it was time to let both of our guests depart with our thanks. Just about everyone in attendance loved this book, and getting a chance to discuss it with its creator and editor was a great treat.

Let us know what you thought of Tenth of December in the comments below, and check back on Monday to see what we’ll be reading next!

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