Interview with David Guterson

October, 2011
David Guterson The Oedipus myth of a tragic king, fated to kill his father and marry his mother, is one of the world's oldest parables. Now American novelist David Guterson catapults this classic story line into the modern world with his latest novel, Ed King. The 21st century may be short on royalty, but we do have Internet billionaires. Guterson's protagonist is the self-titled "King of Search," an orphan who grows up to become a fabulously wealthy tech celebrity with a predilection for older women. When he meets an alluring con artist named Diane at a conference, their attraction is magnetic and strangely "familiar." The author, best known for Snow Falling on Cedars (winner of the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award), has also written three additional novels, East of the Mountains, Our Lady of the Forest, and The Other. The Seattle native chats with Goodreads about tragedy, comedy, and the dangers of testing human limitations.

Goodreads: This book plays with concepts set forth by the likes of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. Are you a student of Greek mythology? When did you become interested in the Oedipus myth?

David Guterson: Indeed, my novel Ed King derives largely from the mythology and literature of ancient Greece, specifically from the well-known story of Oedipus but also from the story of Icarus. It addresses themes such as fate, chance, divine agency, hubris, and self-knowledge.

One of the things I noted while working on this book is that the oedipal story has analogues nearly everywhere—medieval Europe, the Near East, Africa, South America. We tend to think of it as conjured by Sophocles, but in fact it's a widely dispersed and enduring myth with roots around the world. So while it was important for me as a novelist to deepen and extend my understanding of the Greek dimensions of this story, it was perhaps even more important to acknowledge the broad river of myth running underneath it and to ponder the sources of that. In effect, I became a student of myth generally when I went to work on this novel.

GR: You've written extensively about the Pacific Northwest, but Ed King's ascent is the first time you've focused explicitly on the impact of the region's tech boom. Is it hubris for man to expect to master his environment through technology?

DG: Ed King is my fifth novel, but it's the first that presents readers with largely urban settings and with very little of the natural world. Still, it's Northwest in locale, and even in sensibility, as it takes a look at Seattle's tech universe, anchored, of course, by Microsoft and Amazon.

The protagonist of my novel, Ed King, is a tech mogul—a billionaire tech celebrity—on a par with Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or the Google guys. He views himself as a visionary and icon, and he's certain that his world-bestriding search company, Pythia, is the most potent force on the planet as it pushes forward on many fronts, including artificial intelligence, perfect search, a Human Genome Project, and instant translation. Of course, we're caught up right now, culturally, socially, and historically, in these very endeavors. Many people hope that via new technologies, we will transcend our limitations and solve our long-standing, seemingly intractable human problems. There is a sense in the tech world that we are on the cusp of a transformation more significant than any in history. Is this not hubris? Are we not, once again, overstepping? Ed King might not answer those questions, but it does put them forward in the context of narrative for our joint consideration, yours and mine.

GR: Diane is a devious, fascinating woman. In addition to Sophocles's queen, Jocasta, where did you find inspiration for her character?

DG: We first meet Diane Burroughs in this novel as a young au pair who sleeps with her host father and then, on having their baby, dupes and blackmails him. She is indeed devious, and about the business of reinventing herself whenever necessary and landing on her feet again, winning the game of life by stepping on other people, and doing all of this without scruple.

In inventing Diane, I took real liberties with the story as told by Sophocles. Like Jocasta, Diane has abandoned her child, and like Jocasta, she's later married him, but beyond that they bear only limited comparison. Diane is in the tradition of Thackeray's Becky Sharp, the heroine—or antiheroine—of Vanity Fair; she's in it for herself, independent and resilient, and won't rely on men for her sense of self-worth—although at the same time, she's driven by a terrible vanity (driven, in fact, to multiple plastic surgeries). Ed King follows two narrative arcs—Ed's and Diane's—with equal commitment, because I was interested in working out the meaning of blindness and hubris in more than one instance. I wanted their stories to resonate with one another. Sophocles's Jocasta is so largely in the background, whereas I wanted and needed my analogue for Diane to be far more visible and prominent—like Becky Sharp.

GR: Your previous novels are known for heavy emotional themes, and yet readers are describing Ed King as "darkly humorous" and even "lighthearted." Was this a change of pace for you? What is your approach to writing humor and satire?

DG: Indeed there is a vast difference in tone between 1994, when Snow Falling on Cedars was published, and Ed King. Yet I do think that the three intervening novels (East of the Mountains, Our Lady of the Forest, and The Other, listed here in order of publication) chart a trajectory via which Ed King makes sense.

The tragicomic sensibility that informs Ed King derives from my sense that, in the modern world, straight tragedy cannot really be brought to bear on such a story. After all, we no longer have the gods or prophecy, and we live in a time when the common man and the ordinary woman are ascendant as heroes and heroines. As a reader of satire, I'm never happy to find that an author has no empathy—that his whole business is to laugh—and I've tried to stay away from that in my novel. There's a legitimacy to laughter—we needn't feel ashamed doing it. We don't have to admonish ourselves morally about it. Nevertheless, the tragicomic demands an undercurrent of sadness—the sadness of the absurd. There's a point at which satire enters the realm of pathos. I've tried in Ed King to strike that tragicomic tone—to allow for humor and sadness as shadows of one another, I suppose.

GR: You've spoken of struggling with writer's block. Was writing this book a faster process than what you've experienced with other books? How has your writing strategy changed since you began writing?

DG: I did experience writer's block in the aftermath of 9/11, but for the most part I've been free of it and tend to think of it not as writer's block but as a symptom of something larger.

The speed with which a book gets written can be, at one level, a function of simple, and inescapable, concrete realities. From 1984 until 1994, I was a high school English teacher, and this is the primary and obvious reason why it took me so long to write Snow Falling on Cedars.

Generally I think a novelist needs two or three good, solid working years to do anything of merit—though of course there are exceptions to this. A lot of time can pass in simply getting started—in gaining the certainty that you know what you want to do, in gaining confidence that all of the pieces will fall into place. There's a tension between knowing too much and knowing too little. In the former circumstance your energy flags because, in effect, you're your own amanuensis—sitting there like a scribe, you take your own dictation and grow bored with it. In the latter instance you simply become frustrated by the muddled amorphousness of it all.

GR: Goodreads member Elizabeth (Alaska) asks, "How did David Guterson learn to make his landscape such an integral part of the story, almost a character itself? He drew such accurate and compelling pictures of Washington in both Snow Falling on Cedars and East of the Mountains."

DG: Thank you for this question, Elizabeth. I started out writing exclusively short stories, many of them over the course of seven years, and this gave me the opportunity to try a lot of things with a less risky commitment than a novel entails. I suppose the short story was where I learned about a lot of things, including the matter you mention—landscape.

For a long time I brought both lyricism and romanticism to bear on my prose about nature, but both these approaches, I think, have dangers—you run the risk of sentimentality, a form of falsehood, when writing in this vein. Of late I've tried to be more plain and honest about landscape, to present it without a burnish or glow, and to allow the reader—and myself—into a different sort of beauty and interest to be found in the natural world.

GR: Goodreads member SmarterLilac asks, "Where do you think the novel form is going in the 21st century? Will we see this genre undergo significant change in the next few years?"

DG: This is a difficult and challenging question. Certainly the novel, like everything else, is always in flux, always becoming something new, and forever responding to its current context so that we can and should expect it to change. I like the intersection in certain "novels" being written today between reality and fiction, and this is something we might indeed see more of as the approach proves itself amenable to the times—the work of Javier Marías comes to mind in this vein. His All Souls is a very fine "novel," and his follow-up to it, Dark Back of Time, insists even further on a new sense of the novel, one in which the notion of reality is every bit as obscure as the notion of fiction.

It has been easy to say for some time now that the novel is dead—and yet the novel has gone on living, and readers are still drawn to very straightforward novels of social realism that do nothing postmodern, meta-fictional, or avant-garde, and some of these novels are masterfully done and fully exploit the form's ability to move and transport readers. There may come a time when we look elsewhere for all of this, but it's difficult to think in the near future that the novel will just rest in peace.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

DG: I suppose what might be most unusual is my wake-up time: 4 a.m. I like the quiet of morning for writing, and I like to come to writing straight from sleep and dreams, before the world intervenes and before I'm embroiled in responding to it.

I spend more than 90 percent of my writing time rereading what I've already written and wielding a pencil. Eventually the page is too messy to make sense of, and so at that point I retype, the better to see it again with more clarity and for another round with the pencil. This circular editing has a quality of endlessness to it, and of obsessiveness, but I persist anyway in the hope of becoming exhausted enough with it that I can add a few more atrocious lines of first-draft prose in need of repair.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

DG: In many ways, the most influential mentor in my life has been the incredible, one-of-a-kind Charles Johnson. If you want to get clued in to this man's genius, check out E. Ethelbert Miller's blogspot, where Charles has been posting for months now on a great variety of topics, always with great erudition and insight.

Some books that have influenced me include Richard Wright's Native Son, Orwell's 1984, and Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych. I mention them not for their artistic merit but because they were each important in forming my sensibility—my way of seeing the world and my role in it. The great writers and the great books influence you first and foremost as a person, and because they do that, they inevitably influence you as a writer, too. You read, something shifts, and you wake up as if from a dream to find you've been changed by the experience.

GR: What are you reading now?

DG: I gave a reading the other night, and afterward someone asked this very question. An audible, low murmur passed through the room when I answered, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood—a murmur of distress, a kind of chill. It put me on the defensive for a moment, made me feel that I was doing something wrong merely by reading something so disturbing. But...what a great book. The prose is so perfectly and beautifully controlled, and the story takes us ever deeper into character, all the while refusing explanation, for, in the end, who can explain Dick and Perry, or what happened to the Clutters? We're left with the truth: that evil is inexplicable. It's so plain and so profound. And so American.

I want to read more in this arena—Janet Malcolm's Iphigenia in Forest Hills, and García Márquez's nonfiction book called News of a Kidnapping.

GR: What's next for you as a writer?

DG: I've been writing poetry—publishing it in periodicals—and plan to continue. I've also written a number of new short stories and plan to write more in the months ahead. I do have ideas for a new novel, but nothing concrete yet. I've also been giving thought to a nonfiction book, but that's nebulous at the moment. I tend to have a number of projects in varying stages of development at any given moment. At the same time, I look forward to more engagement with other writers. This summer I participated in a handful of panel discussions and took pleasure in that and hope to do more of it. I've also enjoyed the opportunity to engage with readers, both in person and online. So in concluding let me say that I'm grateful to Goodreads for giving me this opportunity to enter into dialogue with readers.


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