The book that changed your life: Doretta Lau

The annual Word Vancouver festival is back again with a massively varied menu of author readings, workshops, and events, set to run at venues around town from September 24 to 28. As part of the runup, we asked some of the writers on the bill to tell us about the reading experiences that shaped them. Which books gripped their imaginations early on? Which ones showed them what words can be made to do?

Here’s what Vancouver writer and poet Doretta Lau told us. She’s the author of the bold new story collection How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?, from which she’ll read at 11 a.m. on September 28, in the fest’s Canada Writes Tent outside the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library.

When I think about my development as a reader and as a writer, there is the time Before George and After George. The George in question is Saunders, and the book that changed my relationship to the short story is his collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

I spent the last year of my high-school career trying to emulate Raymond Carver; I failed because I hadn't lived long enough to understand death by a thousand little disappointments. One day in a university workshop, George Saunders entered my life via a classmate. I discovered that Saunders is the master of the correct ratio between funny and sad: this is the very thing I am aiming for in my own writing. If the balance is off, there's no emotional charge, no narrative drive, no magic. 

While reading CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, I learned that any story can be literary if it has a depth of feeling. Once that complex element is in place, I found that it was possible for me to write stories about dating dead men, receiving text messages from the future, and telling ghost stories—all while examining the human condition.