Well, Library Boy, I’m surprised you had the stomach to show up for this, given the—well, maybe you should explain. Anything you’d like to tell the readers about the person who wrote this book called The World’s Strongest Librarian? Like, oh, I don’t know, about the librarian in Tennessee who can deadlift more than you can?
Hey, you know who’s really interesting? George Saunders. I’ve been reading his books for years, and I have to say, Tenth of December is his best yet. Honestly, I’m as surprised by the fact that Saunders continues to improve as I am with just how good the book is. It’s a strange one, but perfect. My favorite in the collection is called “My Chivalric Fiasco.” It contains this line:
And Wrested me from that Place, and Shoved Me into the Street, kicking much Dirt upon my Person, and rip’d my Time card to Bits before mine Eyes, and sent it fluttering Aloft, amidst much cruel Laughter at my Expense, especially viz. my Feathered Hat, one Feather of which they had Sore Bent.
You could never guess at the events which lead to this quote. And that’s Saunders to a T. To a T, I say.
Fiction, right? Short stories, right? I’ve got to say, I’m surprised. The other day at the library, I watched you listen to a guy yap about how fiction was a waste of time for about ten minutes. How come you didn’t enlighten him with Tenth of December? I can only assume that you find fiction useless.
Hardly. Let me ask you something. Imagine that I tell you the most inspiring story imaginable. It is full of truth and courage and love and all those good things that make people say often-untrue things like, “This book changed my life!” But this one, it’s truly uplifting and galvanizing and makes you want to be a better person. Nod if you’re following me. Okay, so because of this book, you start a charity and the charity helps a million—no, a billion—people. Now suppose that I then tell you that this story, the most inspiring story you’ve ever heard, the story that helped you teach a million—no, a billion—orphans to read. Then suppose I tell you that the story was fiction. Were you less inspired because of it? Do you find these orphans and take their books away?
You know, in Devil In The White City, a man is described as being “Elephantine, tactless, blurting.” Sometimes I think he was talking about you.
Hey, if you liked Devil In The White City, you’ll love—
I didn’t say I liked it. I didn’t say I—
—You’ll love The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum. Did you know that one of the founders of forensic toxicology was named Charles Norris? Chuck Norris? How great is that! But let’s keep talking about fiction. Let me give you three different examples from three different books from three different time periods.
Don Quixote was published over 400 years ago.
Huck Finn came out in 1885 in the U.S.
Lonesome Dove came out in 1985.
Each of these books is about a pair of characters. By the end of each of these books I’d say that the reader knows the characters as well as it is possible to know someone fictional. As you follow each pair on their journeys, you react to the things that happen to them, and the things they say and think. Those reactions can teach you something about yourself, fictional or not. The friendship of Augustus McRae and Woodrow Call was so real to me, that I found myself thinking, “Wow, I hope I’ll have friends that I’m still in touch with in 30 years. It was so real that I started getting back in touch with good friends who I had lost track of. That was because of a fictional story of a fictional cattle drive. Real enough for me.
So why did you write a memoir then, and not a novel? Or a short story?
I think I’m best at describing things that I can see. Things I don’t have to invent. I just don’t get the urge to write fiction the way I do with non-fiction.
What was the best part of writing this book?
It took a hideous amount of work, but I can truly say that this is the best book I could have written. I don’t know how I could make it better, I’m so proud of it, and being able to say that is a great feeling. Also, I’ve been told that this book contains, “The very best ode to libraries that I’ve ever read.” I hope that’s true, because that made me very happy.
What was the hardest part of writing a memoir?
Knowing which stories to include. When you write a memoir, you have to decide which periods of your life you’re going to portray. Then you have to choose the episodes that best represent who you were at the time. And nobody looks good all the time, so how do you represent the lows as well as the highs, without getting too dreary…. Happily for me, even though this is a memoir, I’m not always at the center of it. I connect all the dots but I don’t always have to be the focus. I get to step aside and shift the focus to books, to libraries, to authors I love and people I care about. The biggest surprise I had was when my mom, bless her heart, said, “You’ve made me out to be way nicer than I am.” When I asked her if she wanted me to go back and make her a little crueler, she let it go.
What helped you decide which stories to tell?
I read a lot of memoirs while writing this book. I realized that I wasn’t nearly as messed up as most of the people I was reading about.
So you were worried what people would think about you?
Not really. If there’s an upside to having really bad Tourette’s Syndrome, it might be that there is always something more immediate than what someone else is saying or thinking about me. I have to live minute to minute, and tic to tic, constantly trying to figure out how to make the next few seconds better. It forces a constant perspective on me that I don’t think I’d have otherwise.
Wow, so you’re like a total expert on memoirs?
Hardly. But I wrote one and I love it. And I can’t tell you how surreal it is that my book is now going to be sharing space with so many of the authors I adore. Also, I can’t tell you how excited I am to get to go on a book tour and talk about all kinds of books, not just my own. This is a chance for me to try and coerce everyone who hears me into trying my favorites. Books remind me of everything and everything reminds me of books. It’s a nice way to live.
What is the most interesting book or object in the library stacks at your branch?
Okay. We have a wonderful ESL collection. Not too long ago I found a pair of underwear on top of it. Something can be interesting without being good.
Hmm…this is probably the kind of thing that author Terry Deary had in mind when he recently said that “Libraries have had their day” and are “a drain on taxpayers and authors.” If the library has simply become a place to discard your underpants, is he right?
Well, there are other things that happen here. For instance, once a woman locked herself in the special collections area. A library authority calmly explained to her through the glass door that she needed to come out. She heard him out, then yelled, “I will not be your concubine!” And another day someone grabbed a vase of flowers and drank all the water out of it. Also, my library has over one million items that circulate like mad and we put on more than 2,000 programs every year. Stuff like that helps balance out the occasional pair of underwear.
So recently I saw you sign an advanced reader’s copy for a flirty young woman and you immediately apologized for your signature. Has your penmanship discouraged people from asking for your autograph?
Looking at my spastic scrawl, I felt like I had let her down somehow. I was also disoriented by the flirting. I don’t get hit on very often, but when I do, it’s generally by a man. It’s not fair.
You’ve said that you’re kind of uncomfortable with the amount of attention that you’re getting. Why?
Hey, you know who’s great? Mark Twain. And Kurt Vonnegut. And David Foster Wallace. And Cervantes. And Mary Roach. And Steven Dobyns and Geoff Dyer. And Cormac McCarthy and Harper Lee and Melville. And–
Josh Hanagarne is a 6’7” giant known as the World’s Strongest Librarian. A librarian at the Salt Lake City Public Library, he battles his own case of Tourette Syndrome and works to help others. He believes in curiosity, questions, strength, and that things are never so bad they can’t improve. Josh’s popular blog, World’s Strongest Librarian, currently gets more than 80,000 visitors each month. Josh lives with his wife Janette, a professor of history at Eagle Gate College, and his son Max in Salt Lake City, Utah.