Author George Saunders maps the origins of his writing

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George Saunders

Noted author George Saunders is photographed on Gold Coast streets in Chicago. (Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune / February 1, 2013)

And we all live in GeorgeLand now.

But what about the deeply felt empathy in his stories? The tenderness (that has grown more pronounced lately)? The surprisingly palpable sense of gratefulness? The suggestion that nowhere is somewhere?

Where does that come from?

The other story of Saunders is about a guy who, 54 now, once knew the South Side and its suburbs intuitively. He had modest literary ambitions into his late 20s, attended the Colorado School of Mines, studied geophysical engineering. He spent time prospecting for oil companies in the Sumatran jungles, using his downtime to "grope my way toward being well-read." He remained an uncertain writer for a while. Even after being accepted into the creative writing program at Syracuse, Wolff said, "the big thing with George was getting him over a sense of being a fish out of water surrounded by more classically trained English majors."

As we drove on, Saunders said he spent a lot of time trying to write as though he had sprung from somewhere else, anywhere else: "When I was in my 20s, I would think about Oak Forest and go, 'If only I had grown up in Winesburg, Ohio! Then I would have something to say!' I was really influenced by Hemingway then and would begin all my stories with somebody thinking something, then they would stand around and brood. But growing up here wasn't like Hemingway, and what was I going to write: 'Nick walked into the Wal-Mart'?

"I wanted to be one of those writers alive to their times. Which meant you had lived a life, you did a bunch of cool (expletive), came from a cool place, wrote about it. That's what being a writer meant. Later, of course, you see that (Sherwood Anderson's) Winesburg is fictional and that suburbs have (vagaries), same as anywhere. So I may not have had a gothic childhood, but childhood makes its own gothicity."

Saunders pointed to a restaurant on Cicero: "That burrito joint. That was my father's. Pull over there."

Saunders' father owned this restaurant on Cicero in the '70s. It was a Chicken Unlimited then, and Saunders was a delivery boy. Saunders slid into the booth across from me. "I drove a '69 Camaro, listened to the Allman Brothers on my eight-track, looked like a '70s guy, loved delivering food," he said. "There was this rotating cast of characters. I would drop in on 20 households a day, and a lot of the older guys would want to keep you there to give advice. There was a security guard who would come into the restaurant and tell us about being falsely accused of masturbating at a Fotomat. Then you would learn he was fired for mistakenly arresting another security guard. Then you'd hear he was taken to a mental institution. The impulse is — a strange guy.

"But my second impulse became, how hard this person's life must be. There was this woman who would order a Pepsi and a pack of cigarettes, and we'd get four orders a night from her, same order every time. I would go to her apartment, and you want to sneer at this woman. But walk into her home, and she's old and shaking and has nobody to talk to. Get exposed to that over a period, your empathy can't help but kick in."

Saunders has a graying beard and receding hair that suggests either a Civil War re-enactor or Colonel Sanders. He is earnest, excited, speaks fast, and the first thing friends say is that he is really like that: empathetic, way beyond common decency. Chicago writer Adam Levin, whom Saunders mentored at Syracuse, said: "He has that Bill Clinton thing where you feel like the center of the universe when he talks to you, and it's no put-on, because I think George believes to give a person your attention is to honor them."

This modesty is not forced.

Earlier in the day, we drove to Chicago's Gage Park neighborhood, where Saunders lived until he was 5. I had asked to see his first house. He directed me past schoolchildren on their way home and told me to pull into an alley. I crept along somewhat confused until he pointed to a garage and asked me to stop. "OK, I think this is it," he said.

The Saunders family (mom, dad, three children) lived here for several months, in a refurbished garage, before his father got a job for the J.W. Petersen Coal Co. in Chicago, eventually becoming the vice president. Saunders insists he did not have a hardscrabble life, just a thoughtful one. He told me about his father being violently mugged and yet coming home "with this gleeful air, because now he had a story." He told me about how his mother, knowing that Saunders felt bad one holiday season for bringing home a pathetic Christmas tree, drilled dozens of holes into the trunk and glued in additional branches until it resembled a traditional tree.

His parents, who are in their 70s, eventually moved to Texas and bought a motor home; when that home was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina (they lost everything), they bought another motor home. When I asked his mother, Joan, for dirt on her son, she said, "Oh, I would love to, but Georgie's a nice kid."

Saunders and his wife, Paula, whom he met in the creative writing program at Syracuse, have become practicing Buddhists (he won't discuss it). He was raised Catholic, though, and as a child attended St. Damian School in Oak Forest. We sat in its large empty parking after it had closed for the day.

He told me: "Once, I had a very strong feeling of transcendence because of this place. I had this feeling that Jesus was substantial. I don't know how to say it without sounding like an idiot, but I remember thinking that I would see how long I could keep this feeling. I literally felt it leaving me, and then the next day I was me again."

We sat in silence.

"I once saw a priest kissing a nun! Oh, yeah, I got out of class early because I was doing a reading at Mass, and I walked into this room quietly and I saw the nun against the vestibule, and the priest had his leg pressed between her legs. I backed out so quietly, and they never knew I was even there. I didn't tell anybody for 10 years. It didn't mean they were hypocrites. It just meant they were human beings."

Later, Mary Karr, the best-selling memoirist ("The Liars' Club"), who has taught at Syracuse alongside Saunders for decades, told me: "The thing about George is he is that rare person who is interested in being kind. It's why he doesn't suffer from the vanity that infects other writers — this spiritual side. I knew David Wallace a long time, and he knew he was a genius, (Jonathan) Franzen knows he's a genius, but George is not interested in being a genius. He's in-the-moment, and everyone loves him. It's the bad thing about knowing George. You're always 'Ms. Also Appearing.' Nobody gives a (expletive) if you show up for dinner."

By the time we reached his old neighborhood, it was dark. We parked outside his old house, a humble suburban split-level. The sidewalk in front was icy. He was the prom king, he mumbled. But, he said in the same breath, he was deeply prudish: "I was a straight arrow, a control freak. I didn't do drugs or drink, and this was the '70s. I didn't like the loss of control. Which isn't exactly right, because I didn't know what happened when you did drugs. We had a neighborhood guy who once asked me if I would sneak beers. I said no. He said I would. I said no. He bet me: If I didn't sneak a beer before 18, he would give me $500. And he did."

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