Author George Saunders maps the origins of his writing

How did he know you didn't? I asked.

"Because I would go to this restaurant, Lum's. They cooked hot dogs in beer. So one time I told him that I think I lost that bet because I ate one of those hot dogs. And he was like, 'Uh, George, no, you're fine …'"

I asked why he became a writer.

He said he didn't know.

The best he could come up with were influences and opportunities, few of them literary: Joe and Sheri Lindbloom, high school teachers who helped him get into college; the comedy of Steve Martin. He told me about how, after Sumatra, his aunt and uncle let him live rent-free in their Oak Forest home and write. He wrote and worked as a convenience store clerk and a roofer. And before he had a story published, he had lived a life.

Which, ironically, is not always the case with many of the prospective students who apply to be in his class at Syracuse, said Sarah Harwell, associate director of the creative writing program: "The number of people we see who want to write like George or just mention him in their cover letters, it's astonishing. He's become an influence on an entire generation of writers now, and they can do the funny names, but they rarely grasp how moralistic he is. They imitate everything about him but the compassion and the gratitude."

We got back in the car to leave. There was no traffic, no people, not a flurry spiraled in the streetlights.

Saunders looked around and said, "My little kingdom," then he added, absent-mindedly, "I think about this place when I look at my stories and notice some tiny overlay between the contemporary and nostalgic. That's old-school Chicago trying to break through. And when I notice, it's here, right here, coming through."

Then we drove off.

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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