Interview with Selden EdwardsAugust, 2008
It's a classic plot: man spends his days teaching The Great Gatsby to high school students and his nights writing what he hopes will be the next great American novel. But this isn't a book—this was Selden Edwards' life for 30 years. Fortunately, the last chapter of his adventure ends happily. After dozens of rejection letters, Edwards' opus about a rock musician turned time traveler (aptly named The Little Book), scored a publishing deal and is now earning rave reviews on Goodreads. Edwards, 68, is retired now and working a second manuscript. He hopes it will take a lot less time to finish.
Goodreads: You started The Little Book in 1974 as a student at Stanford, and now 34 years later, after persevering through countless drafts and setbacks, you get to see it on the shelves of bookstores nationwide. How did you react when you received the news of your book's publication?
Selden Edwards: When my agent called to say that we had an offer, a significant one, I was totally surprised and sort of overwhelmed. I still am, really. After all those years of writing and rewriting, crafting and recrafting, all with no encouragement or success, I had become highly doubtful, with at least part of me, that my story would ever be published. To see it now on bookshelves is an absolute dream come true. I pinch myself daily.
GR: What inspired the story, and how different is the finished version from your original concept? You started the book in your 30s — has the book and its characters grown with you through various phases of your life?
SE: My idea for a "hero" waking up in 1897 Vienna came to me in 1974, when a friend was reading a book about the period, and I became fascinated with the idea of traveling there. I began doing research and reading and became more and more enthralled. Originally, Wheeler Burden (his name from day one) was 33, my age at the time. Over the years, he got older and older until I finally fixed the "precipitating event," his launch point, at 1988, freezing his age at 47.
GR: Did you travel to Vienna as part of your research?
SE: As soon as I chose 1897 Vienna as my setting, I began reading everything I could find about the period, and I really fell in love with it. Carl Schorske's Vienna: Fin de Siecle was my favorite and most valued source. But I developed a library of over 50 books on the subjects of my novel. One of my most treasured books is a Baedeker's Guide to Austria from the period. The Little Book is primarily a work of imagination, but I did travel there in the late '80s and spent a day and a half walking the streets and getting a feeling of the place.
GR: The concept of time travel appeals easily to the human imagination, but as a story element, it is extremely difficult to do well. How did you handle this tricky element in the story?
SE: From the very beginning, I had Kafka's Metamorphosis in mind. The main character, Gregor Samza, just wakes up and finds he is a bug. No explanation. That's what I wanted. I did not want to discuss the mechanics by which the time dislocation had happened. Although the reader learns in the end what caused the dislocation in time, there is no explanation of how it all worked.
GR: The book's fictional protagonist, Wheeler Burden, encounters many real historical figures, including Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, Gustav Mahler, and even Adolf Hitler as a child. Why did you decide to weave a fictional story around these real men and events?
SE: I did not want to create a story in which all the famous historical characters of the period traipse through in cameo roles. I did create some very significant encounters, but each one has a very real reason (justification) for being in the plot. Wheeler's encounter with Buddy Holly is simply a pure fantasy of the author's. Actually, all the encounters were just plain fun to write and think about.
GR: Tell us about the first time you finished a draft and submitted it for publication. After being turned down, did you begin rewriting immediately? What motivated you to keep finessing your work over such a long period of time?
SE: I finished the first draft of this story in 1975, as an independent study my last quarter of graduate school. That story was much lighter and much, much simpler. I'm very glad it was not accepted for publication then, when I sent it to a couple of publishing houses. When it was rejected with some very disappointing comments, I thought it had no hope—the premise was just too radical. I put it away for quite a while, but it was very much on my mind, and I kept running the plot and character changes through my head. In 1988, I took a mini-sabbatical and wrote a version with a much more complex story line. When that version was rejected a number of times, I abandoned it again, but the story stayed in my head, and I kept thinking of new wrinkles. During the '90s, the Freud parts really came to life. Finally, in 2003, I retired and set about recording all the changes I'd thought up. I finished a draft and one more significant and pretty dispiriting round of rejections. The whole process was very manic depressive. Fortunately, the manic won out. Basically, I just loved my story, and as disappointing as the rejections were, I kept getting it back out and working on it again. I guess I was just like Wheeler: sort of obsessive about it.
GR: What are you working on now? Is there another novel in the works?
SE: I am currently working on a second novel involving much of the same material, in another time period. I will finish this one a little more quickly than I did its predecessor.
GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?
SE: I'd say that working on a novel for over 30 years is a bit unusual, not what I intended, but it turned out just great. Over the thirty-plus years that I spent writing The Little Book, I had a day job as an English teacher and headmaster, which I loved. I wrote primarily on days off and vacations. To me a writing day is from breakfast till lunch. I love the feeling of having a productive morning of writing, with an afternoon free to roam and ramble. Now that I am retired, I can write whenever I want, and mornings remain my favorites.
GR: How has your experience as an educator impacted your writing?
SE: My ideas about education and introspection permeate this story. In many ways, it is an homage to teaching. The Haze, one of the characters, of course, is a legendary teacher, but also schools and schooling play a big part in the story. Of course, Wheeler's life role, in the end, is that of a patient and insightful teacher.
GR: What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?
SE: I just finished (and loved) two by Geraldine Brooks: March and People of the Book. I love reading and getting swept up in big saga-type novels. Among my all-time favorites are The Catcher in the Rye, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Lonesome Dove, Ragtime, the The Sportswriter, and The Prince of Tides. As an English teacher, I have to add that The Great Gatsby is my favorite all-time classic.