8 Great Questions: Paula Saunders

The novelist extols the virtues of Philip Roth and unpacks her nightstand’s bookish stack.

Paula Saunders

In the years after World War II, the plains of South Dakota still embody all the contradictions—both ruggedness and promise—of the old frontier. In this profoundly American landscape of Paula Saunders’ The Distance Home, René shares a home, a family, and a passion for dance with her older brother, Leon. In contrast to René, a born spitfire, Leon is a gentle soul. The only boy in their ballet class, Leon silently endures brutal teasing while René excels at everything she touches, basking in the delighted gaze of their father.

Yet as René and Leon grow up, they grow apart, grasping at whatever they can to stay afloat—a word of praise, a grandmother’s outstretched hand, the seductive attention of a stranger—as René works to save herself, crossing the border into a larger, more hopeful world, even as Leon embarks on his own self-destructive path.

Recently, Paula spoke with Read It Forward about the power of language to ease suffering, how literary fiction can guide us, and her unique interpretation of a Madeleine L’Engle classic.

Featured Image: Lorenzo Gritti; Author Photo: Chloe Aftel

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What’s the book on your bedside table?

When She Was Good by Philip Roth, which I'm right in the middle of and am stunned by. I haven’t read Philip Roth except for Goodbye, Columbus, which I read many years ago. When She Was Good is just overwhelming for me. The way Roth is building this gorgeous, complex, now-just-starting-to-turn-bitter character is heartrending and feels so true. It’s a fabulous thrill to read. We’ll see how it comes out! Also, since I tend to stack books on my bedside table: Silences by Tillie Olsen, which is a staple of encouragement for me to work, to speak. Women In Love by D.H. Lawrence because I recently reread Lady Chatterley’s Lover and The Virgin and The Gipsy, and I want more of that voice. The Heart of Unconditional Love by Tulku Thondup because sometimes I have to try to remember who I am before I fall asleep. Tar Baby by Toni Morrison because it’s the book I just finished—in awe, once again, at her insight and astonishing mastery.

What’s the one book you tell everyone to read?

Lately I’ve been telling everyone they need to read The Hours by Michael Cunningham. I reread it recently and was so moved by it that on the last page—as I sat all alone at my kitchen table—I actually audibly gasped with my hand to my heart, and tears sprang to my eyes and were rolling down my cheeks, dripping onto the table, before I could even stand up. It was that moving! It is a glorious, magnificent book.

Name three characters from literature or authors (dead or alive) that you’d want in your ideal book club?

Jean Rhys. Definitely. Because I adore her, love her books, and want to write like her. Edward St. Aubyn. Ditto. And Willa Cather. Ditto again. Oh, my. Do I ever want to be in that book club!

What word do you love and why? What word do you hate and why?

I’m not sure that I love or hate any words in particular. I love words that are put together in a way that eases suffering for people or creates more understanding. And I do really hate words put together for the purpose of manipulating or crushing people or gaining personal power—like anything about “making America great again.”

What’s the one book you love to give as a gift and to whom do you give it?

On the Rez by Ian Frazier, which I like to give to anyone I know from South Dakota. It offers such a full, bracing picture of life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and is so engaging and eye-opening. Really, everyone in the country should read it.

What’s the one book you read as a kid that has stuck with you?

Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, because as I (likely erroneously) remember it, whenever a fog rolled into town, the girl protagonist got to go out into the foggy woods and meet three witches who helped her figure out what she needed to do to help her family and make things right. Is this actually what happens in that book? Probably not. But I’ve carried that storyline around in my head for years.

What’s the one book that never fails to delight or inspire you?

Tolstoy’s Anna Kareninathe dialogue, the descriptions, the contrasted lives, the anguish, the desire, the love, the cultural restrictions, the crushing jealousy, the abandonment, the despair, the loss. Hang on to your heart.

If you could only read one genre for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?

I would read literary fiction because that’s where language rises to meet our bigger questions of humanity, life, love, and loss. Throughout my life, I’ve turned to literary fiction as a guide. It helps me think and see things more subtly, with more awareness and greater complexity. It most often raises questions that are on my mind, too, concerning itself with justice and the larger view of what it means to be a human being—how we get it right, and how we get it wrong. And it concerns itself with beauty: the great beauty of our lives and the beauty of language, as it endeavors to meet truth and experience. Mostly, when it’s good, literary fiction touches my heart and lifts me up, making me feel just a little closer to where I’d like to be.

PAULA SAUNDERS grew up in Rapid City, South Dakota. She is a graduate of the Syracuse University creative writing program, and was awarded a postgraduate Albert Schweitzer Fellowship at the State University of New York at Albany, under then-Schweitzer chair Toni Morrison. She lives in California with her husband. They have two grown daughters.
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