Volume 1
An Online Literary Magazine
July 25, 2008

 

Stories Steeped in the Natural World: A Talk with David Guterson

Interview

Christian Martin

 


David Guterson. Photo by Alan Berner

David Guterson, the 52-year-old Bainbridge Island author famous for his debut novel Snow Falling on Cedars, writes stories steeped in the natural world. "A sense of place informs much of my work," he explains. ďItís something I canít seem to help.Ē All of his novels are set in particular environments in Washington State, a corner of the country blessed with a wide variety of landforms, weather systems, plant and animal communities and human cultures.

 

Instead of functioning as decoration or backdrop, the settings in Guterson's novels often influence the story and the storytelling style. He grounds these settings with specific and authentic details, making the places come to life on the page. Guterson has developed this gift of making places leap off the page in part by traveling around the Pacific Northwest.

 

"I like to be out of doors and on foot as much as possible," Guterson writes. "The heartbreaking beauty of the world speaks to me in a powerful way and I feel a constant compulsion to be in the presence of mountains, rivers, fields, coulees, canyons, breaks, draws, and woodlands."

 

Gutersonís forthcoming novel, The Other, is the tale of two close friends growing up in Seattle. John William Barry has inherited the wealth of two of Seattleís elite families; Neil Countryman is blue-collar Irish. Theyíre brought together by a love of the outdoors that takes them into Washingtonís remote backcountry, where they must rely on their witsóand each otheróto survive.

 

In 2003, with the publication of Our Lady of the Forest, The Writerís Workshop Reviewís Christian Martin had the opportunity to speak to Guterson at length about his writing habits, influences and goals, as well as his thoughts on the role of environment in fiction. Earlier this year, he interviewed Guterson again to update their conversation following completion of The Other. What follows blends both interviews in an edited, slightly rearranged version, true to the spirit of the originals.

 

 

CM: To what degree do you control the progression of your narrative?How much is planned out? How much evolves unconsciously?

 

DG: I have a balance between what I know, what my plan is, and the structure, versus a lot of unknown and mystery and discovery. I work in existing genres:Snow Falling on Cedars, for instance, is a courtroom drama. That gives me a sense of structure; I know that a courtroom drama has opening statements, witnesses, cross examinations, a verdict. In East of the Mountains, I had a mythic journey story which has its own conventions. Our Lady of the Forest has all the conventions you see in stories about apparitions of Mary. These genres give structure to what Iím doing.

 

But the details are hazy to me; Iím going to discover them as I go, and learn as I go. I think without that Iíd get bored and not be able to finish. If I was executing a plan I donít think I could sustain writing a novel for the years it takes. There needs to be the sense of discovery, the opportunity to allow the unconscious to speak, and room to have these realizations about the story and characters and yourself.

 

CM: Your fiction is often noted for strong character development, for both primary and secondary characters. I've found your more memorable characters, like Ishmael Cross, Ben Givens and Tom Cross, to be fleshed out in extraordinary detail, brought to life with complexity and compassion. Can you talk about the two main characters, Neil Countryman and John William Barry, from The Other -- who they are, what they're motivated by and by what means you wrote them into being?

 

DG: Well, these two guys are best encountered in the book itself, of course. Theyíre Seattle teenagers circa 1974, so they like to smoke dope and get lost in the woods. Thatís my own era and milieu. Neil goes on to become a high school English teacheróso did I. John William goes on to seven hermetic years in the woodsóI yearned in that direction myself, but never did it, mainly because, like Neil, I met someone who kept me in the world. John William is fixated on the Gnostics. He goes to the woods because rejection of the world is central to the Gnostic view, which he takes seriously. Heís also got family problemsóthe only child of dysfunctional parentsóso heís screwed up and a little off his rocker.

 

CM: What did you find particularly challenging in creating John?

 

DG: I donít know if I can answer this. That part of things doesnít stand out, in my mind, as more or less challenging than anything else. Itís all equally challenging. I canít pull out one piece without pulling out the rest.

CM: When creating characters on the page, do you put a lot of your personality into them? Or do you consciously avoid this?

 

DG: With characters, Iím not conscious of trying to avoid anything. Whatever works is good. If itís a piece of me, great. If not, thatís OK, too. Hereís a person Iím making up and I just get there however I can. The process is a muddle. Honesty seems to me to be a big part of it. You know about yourself -- how complicated, contradictory, moody and ever-changing you are -- so on the basis of that, you can guess everyone else is, too. The main thing for me is not to look down on my characters. Theyíre at least as complicated as I am.

 

CM: How much do you control your characters, as opposed to the characters just being out there on their own and youíre dictating or taking notes?

 

DG: The characters are constantly surprising me. They begin to insist on certain things. For example, with Caroline, Father Collins, and Tom Cross, there was always this question of whether or not they would be transformed. Will there be redemption? Will the coming of Mary alter their lives?Even though I had intended at the beginning for everybodyís life to be altered, Caroline let me know that she wasnít going to be altered, that she wouldnít be touched by that. And I had to listen to that. So, that happens all the time, you know?

 

CM: When youíre starting out on a novel, what comes first: characters, plot, landscape, or quandary?

 

DG: I start with a question. I then go from there to setting, asking myself, ďWhatís the appropriate landscape to explore this question?Ē This was the case with Our Lady of the ForestóI envisioned a novel about spirituality and belief, then, after that, I asked myself ďWhereís this subject best explored?Ē And then, deciding that it was the rainforest, I went ahead with characters and story.

 

CM: How has growing up in the Pacific Northwest, being a native son of Seattle, influenced your writing style and the kind of stories that you tell?

 

DG: The practical side is Iím pretty much stuck with this area; Iíve never lived anywhere else and I donít know any other place, so itís sort of for-better-or-for-worse. I have to write about here, and thatís not necessarily a bad thing. Itís a good way to get to know a place inherently, without making any conscious effort to study it. Itís my life, the world I walk around in and live in, and that gives me a lot of confidence when itís time to write about it. I'm not feeling uncertain. Say I moved to Ireland and decided to write a book about Ireland. The whole time I probably would feel that there was a high degree of likelihood that I was getting things wrong. I donít feel that way about this place, and thatís the result of being a native.

 

The other good thing is that we have a diverse landscape here. I donít feel Iím writing about the same specific terrain over and over again. The first novel was on an island in a snowstorm, the second was in the sagebrush steppe in the Columbia Basin, and the third was in a deep rainforest. I havenít exhausted the landscapes of Washington State either; thereís a lot to write about without repeating myself in terms of setting. I feel like a regional writer, but not by choiceó itís just that Iíve always lived here.

 

CM: There are many "mini-episodes" within these pages that bring to life various nooks and crannies of the Pacific Northwest from an older era. As someone born and raised in the Seattle area, the many scenes and references to places in that city in particular rang true to my ear (including Dick's Drive-In in Wallingford!). Is it safe to assume that you are "writing what you know" in scene and setting in The Other?

 

DG: It certainly isnít dangerous. To tell you the truth, Iíve never understood that ďwrite what you knowĒ phrase. What does it mean? It implies the possibility that I could write what I donít knowóthat I have two categories to choose from. As far as I can tell, thereís no access to what I donít know. If I donít know it, how can I write about it? To tell someone to ďwrite what you knowĒ seems purposeless to me, because they have no other choice.

 

CM: Why did you choose to set your last novel in the Olympic rainforest?

 

DG: The rainforest is such a spiritually evocative place; itís got all this density of flora and lush growth and you canít go there without feeling some kind of spiritual possibility. It seemed like a plausible place to have a haunted vision, there in the forest with its mystery and shrouded light.

 

CM: Iíve spent a lot of time on the Olympic Peninsula and, while reading Our Lady of the Forest, I was impressed by how accurately and evocatively you replicated that environment. Do you take notes while youíre hiking, or actually write in the forest?

 

DG: No, I didnít write in the forest or take many notes. I do remember spending a part of a day with a guy who really knew his way around Chanterelles. I took a notepad and a bucket, and the two of us went out to pick mushrooms. Heíd explain things about the mushrooms and Iíd write them down, and I took a few notes about the forest generally while we were doing that. But, just having spent a lot of time myself over the years in the Olympics, itís all already there.

 

CM: As I was reading Our Lady of the Forest, I kept a list of particular species that you mention: Nymphalis Californica, alder, club moss, salal, devilís club, ferns. What sort of natural history research did you do for this book?

DG: Thereís a book that I rely on, and have for a long time, called Cascade Olympic Natural History by Daniel Matthews. Itís now in its second edition. Years ago, the Seattle Times asked writers, ďWhat are the top ten quintessential Pacific Northwest books for you?Ē I mentioned this book among the top ten. Thatís the book I use to check on mosses and the names of things. Itís a great book.

 

CM: Another element in Our Lady of the Forest that fascinated me was the way in which you wrote about the essence of the depressed Northwest logging town and the injuries that these communities have suffered over the past decade. Can you talk about how you were able to write about them so knowledgeably?

 

DG: For four summers, starting when I was 18 years old, I worked for the Forest Service on a brush disposal crew burning slash from clear-cuts. The town that I was in is called Randle. Itís on Highway 12, between Centralia and Yakima, and between Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier. At that time, Randle was really a boomtown. We couldnít burn the slash fast enough. The mills were going 24 hours a day. In Morton and Packwood, the two nearest towns, it was the same way. They were going gangbusters on the logging. Iíve got long-term experience with these towns, beginning in 1974, when I was acquainted with people and knowledgeable about these places from having lived there.

 

Since then, as Iíve gone out hiking and climbing, Iíve passed through these towns and witnessed their demise. For nearly 25 years, I've been interested in this decline, watching the historical slide, traveling through and watching the disintegration. I think my depiction of North Fork in the novel comes out from all of that.

 

CM: Your fictional town of North Fork has an authentic feel: the way people talk, the banter in the tavern, the list of items the logger buys at the local grocery store. The details are so rich I imagined you rented a place in Forks for six months and lived this life.

 

DG: I've lived in the Pacific Northwest so long that I feel really comfortable and confident writing about this world. If it was Ireland, I wouldnít know what the hell they walk out of the store with. Iíd be guessing, and Iíd be wrong.

 

CM: How much of your novels depend upon their particular places? Could these stories be told as successfully in some other geographical location?

 

DG: I spend a lot of time putting landscape into my stories. I think if you change the landscape, you change the story. Thereís no way you can pull that element out without pulling out the characters or the plot or the point of view. Change any of those things and youíve got a completely different story.

 

CM: Do you tend to read novels with landscape a central part of the story?

 

DG: I donít seek out books because they have that quality. I read eclectically: books that people recommend to me, books that look interesting, books with different views, books that win awards. I donít look for books that are fused with landscape.

 

CM: Nicholas OíConnell, in his survey of Pacific Northwest literature On Sacred Ground, concluded that literature from this part of the world often shares the trait of negotiating the relationship between people and place. Do you feel an affinity with this thesis?

 

DG: Well, I think thatís true everywhere. People write the ďNew York Novel,Ē the ďSouthern Novel,Ē the ďWestern NovelĒó set in the classic mythic American Westóand the ďMidwest Novel.Ē I donít think itís unique to the Pacific Northwest that here we have a literature in which people are contending with landscape. Itís universal; people are immersed in landscape and contending with landscape, and their lives are involved with landscape.

 

CM: Which authors have stylistically influenced the way you write?

 

DG: Nobody comes to mind. In fact, Iím not even sure if that is really possible. I think that inevitably you discover your own voice, and youíre stuck with whatever voice you have. You canít decide to be influenced by anybody. You may come across a writer you have a natural affinity for and recognize that, in tone or sensibility or vision, they are like you. Ultimately, itís not about being influenced as much as itís about a process of discovering your own voice.

 

CM: Your novels are known for their exploration of moral dilemmas and spiritual struggles. Do you feel thatís part of your writing?

 

DG: I think the notion of moral concern sometimes raised in reviews about me and my work is often confused. I donít think itís the right term for whatís going on in my work. I do think I am asking broad human questions that might be viewed as philosophical or existential questions, but I donít think ďmoralĒ is the right term. I would say questions about the human condition are at the heart of my work.You know, there certainly are a lot of other writers who have done the same--Tolstoy, Camus, and Dostoevskyóitís not a specialty niche.

 

CM: How do you imaginatively enter into these worlds you portray? Whether itís in a Japanese internment camp, or a WWII battlefield, or a tavern in a depressed logging townó what helps you to go to these places?

 

DG: Part of it is gathering raw material via research so that you have data to work with, facts and notes. But itís also experiential, a matter of bringing your own mind imaginatively into the situation. Talking specifically about Snow Falling on Cedars, thereís a description of this long train ride down to Manzanar. Well, itís not a train ride Iíve taken, certainly not in the 1940ís, and not into internment. But Iíve been uncomfortable on trains and Iíve been hot and tired and hungry on buses. So I try to take those experiences and extrapolate from them, and then combine them with my research and notes. I take those two diverse starting points and bring them together in my imagination in order to render the experience on the page.

 

CM: When youíre immersed in one of these worlds, is it hard to keep them separate from your waking reality?

 

DG: Itís a struggle to get up in the morning, go to your desk and try to situate yourself again in the world of the story. And then itís a struggle to sustain that immersion. Like being in a dream and not waking upó thatís the state of mind Iím trying to induce when I sit down to write: an immersion in the dream world of the story.

 

CM: How long was the process from starting the first draft of The Other through to the final draft you submitted for publication?

 

DG: I really donít know. Time and dates are blurry for me. Iím not sure I know what starting a novel means. In some ways itís just there and always has been there.I published my last book in í03, and now itís í08 ó five years. Iíve been publishing a new book every four or five years since í94.

 

CM: Do you feel like you "push" yourself as a writer with each new book?

 

DG: I get pushed. Or pulled. Something draws me in. Then Iím stuck, for better or worse, with the challenges. Sometimes thatís satisfying; other times, itís depressing. Sometimes I feel illuminated, sometimes I feel throttled. Another day goes by, another page or two or three, day in and day out, some of them good days, some of them bad.

 

CM: How has fiction writing changed for you since 1994 when Snow Falling on Cedars was published? What has gotten harder and what has gotten easier?

 

DG: Nothingís gotten easier, thatís for sure. Every day, another blank page ó how to fill it with something worthwhile? I donít have a better answer now than I did then. I have less stamina, but more experience ó so those cancel each other out. The end result is that each day feels about the same as the last one, for years on end. Waiting for Godot.

 

CM: Do you keep set hours at your desk?

 

DG: Fairly set. I like to get started first thing in the morning, and then stay with it until I just donít have the mental energy to keep going.

 

CM: How did your 12 years as an English teacher contribute to your writing?

 

DG: I think the main thing teaching did was to focus my attention. As a teacher I didnít have a lot of time to write, so I had to develop some discipline, making myself get out of bed early in the morning. I had to work on mental focus, otherwise the hour I had in the morning wouldnít be wisely used. Having a fulltime job as a teacher was demanding, but it brought a certain rigor to what I was doing as a writer.

 

CM: The last time we spoke, you envisioned writing a "Washington State Trilogy" of novels that "you could crack open in 50 years and get a real window into understanding how we lived in this part of the world in the latter part of the 20th century." Here you are publishing your fourth Northwest novel. What happened to your earlier plan?

 

DG: I figured that if someone in the future wanted to open my first three novels, they would see how those books are all cut from the same cloth of time and place, and also, of structure, approach, even vision, if you will. Unlike those books, The Other is a first person narrative that unreels over a long period of time. But itís fine with me if people in the future want to read it, too, and put it next to the others to form a quartet, because like the others, it does give you a window into our approximate place and time. I feel that part of the value of the novels is that you could read these books to become acquainted with a particular part of the world in a particular era.

 

CM: Do you think landscape and nature will always be central when youíre writing fiction?

 

DG: Itís really hard to predict the future. I donít think I could have predicted Our Lady of the Forest. I donít think five years ago I could have looked into the future and said, ďThis is the kind of book that will emerge from me.Ē I donít know what kind of a book will be here five years from now, and whether itíll have landscape in it. You go forward, learning along the way. With the history of my work, it would be a reasonable guess that itíll depend on landscape, but itís hard to say.

 

CM: What do you view as your strengths as a novelist?††

 

DG: I feel relatively accomplished as a prose stylist. I work hard on sentences; I donít view the prose as just a vehicle for the story. I want every sentence to be of interest to the reader, in its own right, just as prose. Thatís one area where Iíve worked hard.

 

I also feel a certain natural facility for creating the arc of a story. All three of these novels are compressedó the action unfolds over a course of a few daysóand thereís a relentless movement towards a climax. They have a suspenseful, page-turning quality. Thatís something else Iíve always felt comfortable with: creating the arc of a plot.

 

CM: What do you view as your weaknesses as a writer?

 

DG: A good novel happens when thereís some inexpressible level at which itís experienced. You know, thereís just some chord struck in the reader that thereís almost no way to voice. I think that happens in the really great novels, and thatís something Iíd like to achieve: that inexpressible reaction in the reader.

 

CM: You donít think youíve done that?

DG: No, I donít. Thatís something that emerges from the composite of the parts, all converging on one thing. There are works of real sweep and majesty out thereóyou see it in Garcia Marquez and Tolstoy, more recently in Phillip Roth and Margaret Atwood.

 

CM: What do you think your role as a novelist at this point in history is?

DG: I think itís the same for me as itís always been for others. Nothing has really changed in terms of the relationship of the storyteller to the culture at large. People have always needed stories, and the role of the storyteller is to provide for that need, to allow people to have the experience of the story. Certainly people want to be entertained; they want to be seized. At the same time, the story should engage the deepest human questions. Thereís a necessity for people to ponder important questions. The story should create the context for the questioning, and I want to create an opportunity for readers to do that. The questions really deep inside of me are also the deepest questions for everybody else. I try to put those out in front of people.

 

CM: Do you have any over-arching hopes for your writing, as far as specific reactions in a reader or in specific questions you are asking?

DG: I want the book to linger with the reader. I want the reader to finish the book reluctantly; I want it to haunt them afterwards. I want them to have an emotional reaction to the book and feel something afterwards. I also want an intellectual reaction afterwards, so they feel some intellectual closure. That closure is not about answers, but it is important that they understand the questions. I donít want finality or a neat tidy package, but I want the questions to be clear, and I want there to be a certain sense of satisfaction. I strive for stories that have a final page that makes sense, so that when readers shut the book, they do so reluctantly but with understanding.

 

 

 

Christian Martin is a freelance writer, environmental educator and backcountry enthusiast based in Bellingham, WA. He is currently at work on a book of collected conversations with ecological writers and artists of the Pacific Northwest and another on the natural and cultural history of Mount Baker. He is also the webmaster and chief podcaster at www.podcastcafe.org. He can be contacted at roadsidecafe@hotmail.com.

 

 

 

 

 

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