is a podcast of stories and “answer songs,” featuring performances by David Gilmour, Joyce Carol Oates, Mary Gauthier, Roxane Gay, Susan Orlean and Toshi Reagon. You can hear an exclusive preview of next week’s episode featuring George Saunders and Amanda Shires, only at Paste.
In the next episode of SongWriter, bestselling author George Saunders and Grammy Award-winning songwriter Amanda Shires discuss art, inspiration and Amanda’s new song, “You Don’t Get to Go.” The song was written in response to George’s story, “Tenth of December,” from the 2013 collection of the same name.
The two are longtime mutual fans, and each has a deep appreciation for the craft and artistry of the other’s work. George is known for his experiments with form and storytelling, especially in his Man Booker Prize-winning novel Lincoln in the Bardo. He is also a songwriter, a practice that he dismisses with cheerful self-deprecation.
“As a failed songwriter, I’m just standing there with my jaw dropped,” George says of Amanda’s new song. “That song killed me. It’s just so beautiful.”
Amanda is known as a songwriter and a fiddle-player, and as a member of her supergroup, The Highwomen. Amanda has also earned an MFA in creative writing, though she is every bit as self-deprecating as George. She says that George has a rare, and in some ways contradictory, combination of talents.
“He’s never clunky, and everything is just sickeningly easy to read,” Amanda says. “And also difficult to read, in that everything makes you want to cry.”
George’s story is about a dying man who wants to spare his family the suffering caused by his illness. The author’s singular, near-magical gift is to somehow transform this sorrow and loss into a funny, deeply human, and uplifting story. No wonder, then, that Amanda needed a number of tries to find the right approach to her song.
“I had to just book the studio time to make myself finish it!” Amanda says. “There are a lot of really bad attempts that I’ve since shredded.”
The song—which can be heard exclusively on SongWriter—takes the point of view of the main character’s wife. During their conversation, George told Amanda that he thought this choice was as clever as it was emotionally intuitive.
“You kind of sussed out the heart of the story,” George says. “Which is the pivot where suddenly we go, ‘You love this person, and you just really messed with them. At the last minute you did this really heartless, or at least thoughtless, thing.’”
“Tenth of December” is longer than most stories on SongWriter, so the episode is broken into two parts. Listen below.
Ben Arthur is the creator and host of SongWriter. You can follow him @MyHeart and hear a song that he wrote in response to “Tenth of December,” “If You Need Me.”