George Saunders on how a slaughterhouse and some obscene poems shaped his writing : Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! Celebrated short story author George Saunders joins us to answer three questions about court stories. With panelists Paula Poundstone, Peter Grosz and Emmy Blotnick.

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George Saunders on how a slaughterhouse and some obscene poems shaped his writing

George Saunders on how a slaughterhouse and some obscene poems shaped his writing

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George Saunders in London, England
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

George Saunders is one of the most acclaimed fiction writers alive, but he didn't grow up wanting to be a writer. In fact, he didn't start seriously writing short stories until he was almost 30. So kids, if you want to end up winning a MacArthur Genius Grant and the Man Booker Prize, put down the notebooks filled with angsty poems and take off the turtleneck and go work in a slaughterhouse for a while.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Peter Sagal: So, is that true, you had a bunch of odd jobs before becoming a writer and you worked in a slaughterhouse?

George Saunders: I did! Not for very long. I was in Amarillo, Texas, and needed to get to Chicago and I needed about $800 to get my car fixed. My job was a knucklepuller. [There'd be these] big legs, they look like big drumsticks. And then, you know, there's this incredibly elaborate thing you had to do to get this piece of meat out of there. And then you just took it in, and like pitched it across the room onto this conveyor belt.

I can just imagine you doing that and thinking to yourself, "you know, what about literature?"

Yeah, I did it about two weeks. And as soon as I had that $800, I just, like, ran over to where you hand in your equipment. And then I just took a sprint out the door. It was the happiest day of my life.

Now, I know you work pretty well. And and there's a story that you've told that I'd love for you to tell again: You had decided to become a writer, and you wrote a novel, and you decided it was terrible.

Yeah, but I wrote it first. It was like a 700 page accounting of a wedding that I'd gone to in Mexico. A friend of mine got married down there. And so I came back and I said to my wife, "Just trust me. This is going to work. Just let me do this thing." So for about a year and a half, you know, I got up early and stayed up late. So finally, at the end of this period, I had a 700 page book and the title of it was La Boda de Eduardo, which means, like, Ed's Wedding.

And with great reverence, I hand it up to my wife, and say, like "just take your time. There's no rush." And so, of course, like any writer, I sneak around the corner and I'm kind of watching her. And she must have been on about maybe page six. And I look in and she's got her head in her hands with this look of deep grief on her face, you know. And I knew, I instantly knew it was incoherent. I was too tired when I wrote it. So that was a big day.

[So, eventually] you knew that you were on to something when you actually heard your wife laugh when she read something you wrote, right?

Yeah. Well, I mean, the very first thing I wrote after that Mexican book was kind of kind a series of pornographic and scatological poems I did at work while I was on a conference call, just kind of killing time. You know, those kind of poems...

Yeah, this is NPR and we know about those kinds of poems.

I also illustrated them on the other page and brought them home. And I almost threw them in the garbage, you know? Almost threw them away. And but I just left them on the table. And I look in to the room and sure enough, [my wife] was, you know, genuinely laughing. And it was kind of like the first time in many years that anyone had reacted that, you know, reacted positively to anything I'd written.

Well, speaking as one of your fans, the one thing we would love and snap up every copy of would be an anthology of pornographic poems with drawings on the back

I think you've got the title right there, Pornographic Poems with Drawings on the Back by George Saunders.