Last week was a big week for OE Spotlight. We held three events throughout the week which culminated, on Saturday, with a unique conversation with the illustrious George Saunders. In celebration of Saunders’ first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, he was joined by two other emerging writers, Thomas Pierce and David James Poissant.
Over 250 people gathered at Tampa Theatre to partake in this, hyperbolically enough, once in a lifetime opportunity. Tampa doesn’t sway masters of literary fiction to stop off and spend an afternoon discussing the intricacies of life and literature. But finally we had a chance to witness something reserved for New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc. It played out in a carefree, unencumbered manner over the course of a short lived hour. Poissant played the role of interrogator while Saunders and Pierce sought deep enough into their own opinions and experiences to present acceptable answers. Everything went smoothly and by the end, all of us waited with books in hand to approach the table with the three authors to get our books signed.
Not everyone might have been as lucky as me, but when proffering my book to George Saunders for his signature, we had a moment to exchange a few words. None of this was too important in the grand scheme, but it was my birthday, and George graciously wished me luck and asked how I was doing and what I had planned for the evening. It wasn’t anything too significant, but at least I was able to shake his hand and say hello.
That interaction got me thinking on a grander scale. For him, it’s rather inconsequential. He meets thousands and thousands of fans throughout the year and probably says some of the same pleasant things over and again. For me, it wasn’t an earth shattering moment, but it’s something I’ll remember for a long time. I won’t remember the exact cadence or inflection, nor the string of words that led into others. But I’ll remember how nice he was, how he seemed genuinely interested in every person there.
During the event, a woman in the crowd asked George about the commencement speech he made at the 2013 University of Syracuse graduation. It’s since been published as a book titled Congratulations, By the Way. The questioner wanted a short thematic synopsis of the speech—wanted to know what drove him to it. He told her the basis revolved around his own, singular regret. It wasn’t a mistake he made, or a tough life decision that eventually turned out to be incorrect. When Saunders looked back at his life, the only moments he regretted were those he failed to show extra compassion. The moments where a pleasant remark or a helping hand would have gone a long way for somebody in need. We all scurry about the maze of life, but there’s no reason to be unkind. He knows that in those little innocuous moments, he personally has, just like the rest of us, the ability to effect positive change. We all can be just a little nicer to one another.