You've written a bestselling novel about a mute boy and a mythic breed of dog caught in a Shakespearean plot involving a ghost and the murder of a father. Is that what you set out to do, or did you start with a single idea that evolved into the book? What exactly was the starting point, way back more than a decade ago when you stared at your first blank page?
The exact starting point was an afternoon some time in the early 1990s, when several ideas suddenly clicked into place. One was that the story of Hamlet (and the stories that preceded Hamlet, such as the legend of Amleth) could be reexamined in a contemporary, or near- contemporary, context. That's hardly a new thought, of course.
Shakespeare gets recycled all the time. But what caught my attention on that particular afternoon was that I could structure a novel like a five-act play. I can't say why, but the idea of novel divided into five distinct acts suddenly put things into a new perspective for me, got me tremendously excited. I know now that what got me going was an insight into dramatic structure, but back then it was a far more intuitive, emotional reaction. Suddenly, I could visualize this story as a shape. That helped me a lot. I'm an extremely visual thinker.
The second idea, or impulse, had to do with setting a novel were I grew up - in small midwest town. The upper midwest, in fact, which I think of as entirely different than the midwest of, say, Iowa or Indiana. I was thinking, north country - winter country. I understood the received opinion about the "heartland" - filled with sentimental provincials - which I resented. The people I grew up around were every bit as good, bad, sophisticated, stupid, cagey, and exquisitely funny as people from any part of any country, and I felt that contemporary fiction had embraced the stereotype of clever-city folk, dopey country folk. It's one of the reasons I was so inspired by the fiction of Rick Russo. His characters might be from small towns, but they are whole, real, smart people that you'd be lucky to keep up with if you ran into them.
The third idea was that the story could revolve around the extraordinary relationship between human beings and dogs, a phenomenon absolutely unique in the world. One way or another, I thought that "dog stories" had been juvenilized over the course of the 20th century, and that was wrong. I'd grown up around a lot of dogs. I knew just how complex and profound the interaction between people and dogs could be. Fiction, I felt, had fallen far behind science in this regard. Tremendously exciting results were coming out of academia, results from philosophy, ethology, cognitive science, and linguistics, all converging, all shedding fascinating new light on what it meant to be conscious, what it meant to be a human being, or an animal. But every contemporary story or novel with a dog in it turned the dog into a puppet, a comic or narrative device. It was maddening. When it came to dogs, the only books worth reading were on the nonfiction shelves.
That, or novels a century old.
I had been thinking about each of these elements for some time, but taken individually, no one was enough to reach critical mass. What happened on that afternoon was that I saw how they might mesh. The resulting idea sounded either absurd or irresistible, I couldn't tell which. All I knew was that, suddenly I was able to envision the entire story - the shape, the tone, the broad outlines of the plot. With huge gaps, of course, but the whole arc of the story. I had this tremendously powerful, instant emotional reaction to it. And I knew I was utterly unqualified to write it.
Postscript to all this: When it comes to the creative process, artists are liars. Events are always messier and more confusing than post facto reconstructions make them sound. I'm no exception to this rule, and surely an outside observer, having watched what happened, would be shaking their head in disbelief after reading the above. But that's the way I remember it.
Almost everyone who has interviewed you about the book or reviewed it has mentioned its Hamlet references, and almost no one has mentioned that it owes a large debt to The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling? The references to Hamlet are clear - in the plot and in the characters' names. Where should readers look to see the references to Kipling?
Yes, the Kipling gets overlooked and the Shakespeare gets overemphasized. Both are mistakes. In fact, I see the correlation being about the same, and always entirely secondary to the foreground story - meaning, Edgar's story. The rule I gave myself while writing (I'm big on giving myself rules) was that I would hold Mowgli and Hamlet in my imagination; Edgar's story would only rendezvous with theirs when it made sense for his story, not because I was adhering to some template. And in fact, almost none of the text corresponds significantly to Hamlet or Kipling's Mowgli stories. But as with any story that touches on older material, your obligation is to both be true to the source and break from it at the same time. In other words, to be true to it, but surprisingly true.
One difference between the allusions to Hamlet and the allusions to Kipling is that the Kipling is overt: the Mowgli stories are Edgar's favourites, and several passages are quoted directly in the book. (Passages I love, by the way. Kipling's prose is gorgeous.)
On the other hand, Edgar knows nothing about Hamlet. That's outside his experience. I don't think you can understand this novel story fully unless you understand how completely Edgar identifies with Mowgli - it is what makes the fourth section, the Chequamegon section, feel so right to me. Edgar is, in a sense, returning to the wild, where his chosen fictional analogue existed all long. And he knows it: He even takes Mowgli's name at one point.
Do you think all the attention on the Hamlet device takes away from what you were trying to accomplish with the novel?
Every single thing someone learns about a story before they read it detracts from the experience, including these very questions. People sometimes write to me and say they wish they hadn't known, and I can only sympathize. As the book was going to press, we all knew that, in time, some of the allusions would run ahead of the book. That's inevitable. It just happened more quickly than I expected, and it happened in reviews, which was a great surprise.
Now, by and large, I think the book has been treated fairly in reviews, and a few have handled spoiler material with admirable deftness, but it is also true that, mainly, reviewers seemed to have been in a race to see who could trot out Hamlet first. Someone finally managed to position it as the first word of the title of their review. That sort of thing made me crazy for while, but I had to get over it: The book would have been no good to be begin with if that's all it took to ruin it.
Yes, Rosebud's a [redacted]- Citizen Kane is still worth watching. For myself, I do not read past the first paragraph of a review if I already plan to read the book, and I hope that reviewers will try not to blurt out too much too soon.
In any case, reviews are best read afterward, when you need someone to talk to about the story you've just finished. Up front what you want, when you can get it, is for a trusted friend to take the jacket off the book, hand it to you, and say, "Don't ask questions - just read this."
To what do you attribute the book's success? What have readers been telling you they got from it?
Attributing the book's success to one factor or another is impossible for me, in part because I simply can't see it as readers see it. I can't be objective. To me, Edgar's story is something that I lived with and worked with for more than a decade, and over about a dozen drafts. In fact, I sometimes forget whether certain scenes made it into the final version or not (at one point, this book was about 30 per cent longer than the final draft). But I remember those scenes, and they colour my interpretation of events in the story.
I'd like to believe that Edgar's story succeeded because the writing was done honestly and in a wholehearted way. But it was not done in isolation - I try to stress this to people when they ask. I've had great teachers, that's for sure, all of them amazingly patient and generous with their advice. I was lucky enough to work with one of the best publishers in the industry, Ecco Press, and with a great editor, Lee Boudreaux. I have a partner, Kimberly McClintock, who believed in the project and who is herself a brilliant and sensitive writer. And finally, many, many people were kind enough to read early drafts of the book and give me their honest opinions. Whatever happened is a product of all those factors, as well as the enthusiasm of booksellers and readers willing to recommend Edgar's story to others.
As for what readers report, it's all over the map, fascinating but impossible to summarize. There is some consensus, of course. Everyone seems to adore Almondine, as do I. Many people say it rekindles their interest in, or appreciation of, their dog. But I get my share of angry mail as well. This story has turned out to be far more controversial than I imagined.
You have been touring this book for close to a year now. How do you maintain your enthusiasm for it after such a long time?
Touring is work, no question about it, and writing while touring is absolutely impossible. But talking with readers is a blast. I don't think I've ever finished a book talk where I wasn't surprised that the time went so fast. I fantasize about transporter technology: Working at home until the very moment I need to be at a bookstore, then stepping into the chamber while someone cues the Theremin music, and... poof! As it is, I have to balance travel logistics with the need for solitary writing time. Sometimes it feels about right, sometimes not. But honestly: This is my big problem? I'm not complaining.
Every successful debut artist fears the sophomore jinx. Will the success of the book make it easier or harder for you to write your next one; i.e. does writing with the weight of expectation on your shoulders inspire you or scare the crap out of you?
I'm unconcerned with the so-called sophomore jinx - a concept I consider specious anyway. (If there's a jinx, it can get you any time, buster.) That attitude might be hard to believe, but I had a 30-year career making software before Edgar was published, work that taught me many lessons I take to heart. Every project has its own trajectory.
The only way to get over one project is to start another. Will the next book sell as many copies as Edgar's story? I have no idea. That's not in my control. It wasn't for Edgar's story, either. All I can do is write the next book as well as I know how - to fall completely, absurdly, comically, in love with it, then trying to do it justice.
That's all any writer can do. If you get that, you've won.
David Wroblewski will be reading from The Story of Edgar Sawtelle at the Globe and Mail Open Book Festival in Toronto this weekend. For details, visit the festival website here .