Photo: Marion Ettlinger
David Wroblewski's first novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (Ecco), won independent booksellers' high praise right out of the March White Box. The wide-ranging novel about a mute boy and his dogs on a Wisconsin farm, having garnered early, widespread, and enthusiastic support from indie booksellers, debuted this month as the top selection of the inaugural Indie Next List.
Bookseller Bill Cusumano of Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor, Michigan, had this to say about Edgar Sawtelle. "This story of a modern-day Hamlet, set in the northern woods of Wisconsin, reaches depths of emotion rare in any novel, much less a debut. Driven by powerful characters, particularly the mute Edgar and the amazing dog Almondine, this story of a family's destruction will resonate with readers long after completion."
Wroblewski, a computer software engineer who's been working on the novel since the mid 1990s and while obtaining his MFA at the Warren Wilson Program for Writers, took some time out of his West Coast tour schedule to talk with BTW about the process of writing The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. He outlines his experience growing up on a farm in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, his lifelong love and study of dogs, as well as his ongoing fascination with the Bard.
BTW: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, an expansive, intricate coming-of-age novel, seems like it might be a daunting prospect for a debut. How did it come to be? And what drew you to take on the themes of a modern Hamlet?
David Wroblewski: I can't imagine any first novel not being daunting for the writer. You don't know what you are getting into, or how large or small it will turn out to be. You get an idea, it gets you in front of the keyboard clicking away. But, soon enough, it becomes its own thing, and your original ideas take a back seat to what surfaces in the writing. That's the nature of craft, in any realm. What finally emerges is most influenced not by any external work, but by that very thing, when it is half-made. Maybe that sounds like esoteric art-talk, but it isn't. I've seen the very same dynamic in the making of software. And in photography.
Likewise, drawing on some older story is very common -- unavoidable, probably. I began writing Edgar Sawtelle with Hamlet in the foreground of my imagination, but also knowing that it was my job to subvert any simple equation between the two. I understood a little of how to accomplish that -- looking for unexplored white space, changing proportion and emphasis, dropping, adding, or merging characters, playing with sequencing, and so on. But I quickly discovered, as I went along, that I was interested in drawing more broadly on Shakespeare -- certain other plays, the use of language, etc. I became especially interested in how the stories in the plays so often feature the elements -- wind, rain, fire -- as gigantic forces. A king on the heath, thunder crashing around him. An old man conjuring up a storm out of the pages of a book of magic. A prince, wandering through a cold, foggy castle. I was a farm kid, I'd spent time in the basement waiting for tornadoes to pass over. I knew that weather and nature really do shape lives.
That all sounds quite rational, though, which means it is partly a lie. In fact, mostly I let the story wander, with no requirement to draw on any particular source. When I look at Edgar's story now, I see mostly a place -- Wisconsin -- and secondarily, bits of Macbeth, Lear, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet. Maybe even a hint of Iago. Looking from a different direction entirely, I also see Kipling's Mowgli. But this novel is -- I hope -- mainly Edgar's story, a story about the Midwest, the character of the people there, and a meditation about the nature of loyalty and familial allegiance.
BTW: Your awareness of dogs and their behavior -- down to details of the tilt of an ear or even that that their paws smell like popcorn -- seems like knowledge gained by experience. How did you come to know so much about dogs?
DW: First of all, I grew up around a lot of dogs. My folks raised dogs for about five years on our farm in central Wisconsin, from about the time I was five until I was 10. Even when they weren't raising dogs, we had all sort of dogs around. So some of that comes from early life experience. It made me a lifelong dog watcher. But in addition to that, I'm an avid reader about canine cognition and behavior -- the field now called canine ethology. As I was researching Edgar's story, I ran into two books that were tremendously influential: the first was Vicki Hearne's Adam's Task, in which she dissects the moral, ethical, psychological, and linguistic issues involved in animal training. The second was a long out-of-print book entitled Working Dogs, written by Elliot Humphrey and Lucien Warner. That book was published in 1934. The breeding program it described went by the name "Fortunate Fields," which readers will recognize from The Story of Edgar Sawtelle because I rather rudely invented a third author, Alvin Brooks, and made Brooks a correspondent and mentor of Edgar's grandfather. The stated goal of that program was to produce "a strain of dogs which are peculiarly able to profit by instruction." Well, I read that and my imagination ran wild. (We all know the results of that work, by the way: it resulted in the establishment of the Seeing Eye guide dog organization.) In The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Edgar's grandfather begins raising companion dogs the way the Fortunate Fields program raised service dogs, and many generations of dogs have come and gone before Edgar is born.
There are many other books I could recommend. Readers can learn more about some other influential books on the Edgar Sawtelle website, www.edgarsawtelle.com, on the "Further Reading" page. (Click "Extras" on the homepage).
BTW: Are you interested in writing nonfiction about dogs or other animals?
DW: I have no nonfiction books planned right now. I wouldn't rule it out, but it would take a pretty unique combination of access, circumstance, and story to lure me away from novels, which are my enduring literary love.
BTW: As you've mentioned, you grew up on a farm in central Wisconsin. What was your life like, and how similar was it to Edgar's?
DW: The Sawtelle farm is the farm I grew up on, transported about four hours north of its real location. I can close my eyes and walk the fenceline any time I want, see the creek, the sumac, the fields. That world is described as accurately as I could manage. And, as I mentioned earlier, my folks raised dogs when I was a kid. But the primary events of Edgar's story have no analog in my life. In fact, my family was very quiet, and my parents both lived into their eighties. We had our tragedies like any family, but they were the ordinary tragedies of rural life -- poverty, illness, isolation.
There are many bits of Edgar's story drawn from my life, but no one except for my family would know the references being made. Forte, for example, is based on a stray dog that we did, in fact, adopt after it was abandoned up the road from us, and it really did retrieve our trash from the dump. Our barn had to be reroofed after a bad storm. The stairs in our old farmhouse house were just as lumpy as the stairs in Edgar's house (and my niece still has those treads, she saved them when the house was razed.) Surely there are hundreds more small details drawn from life that even I'm not aware of.
BTW: Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book is mentioned throughout the novel. Why did you decide to include it?
DW: I grew up reading Kipling's Jungle Book stories, so they seemed a natural reference point for Edgar. As an adult, I admire the beauty of Kipling's prose, the majesty of the voices of the animals. Bagheera still floors me. He's such a tremendous force in those stories.
BTW: I know that your publishing house was very excited about Edgar and worked very hard to get advanced reading copies into the hands of booksellers. Did you get a lot of feedback and support from those early readers of your work?
DW: You bet -- not editorial feedback per se, but tons of support in the form of selection for first edition clubs, requests for readings, even one-on-one encouragement. Part of my education as a writer in the last year has been seeing how profoundly bookseller feedback helps a book. Publishers listen to that feedback -- closely. I'd spent time in my local bookstores simply because I liked them as places to hang out, places where the world of literature mattered. What I've learned firsthand is that booksellers are part of a chain of communication and support that is direct and vital. It has made me think quite differently about what it means to patronize a bookstore -- that walking in those doors is, in fact, an act of patronage in the original sense of art patronage.
BTW: What's your next project?
DW: I have a new novel brewing, but it's in its early days, and, until recently, whenever I came into my office I had to fight the urge to begin revising some part of Edgar's story, even though it was off to the printing presses. I consider myself to be building the workshop in which I'll make the next novel right now -- hanging the tools on the wall, metaphorically speaking, and hauling in the lumber. All sorts of jiggered up little scenes and characters are sitting in the corners, and my pile of interesting facts grows daily. I know the story in the large scale. This is a fun stage in the process -- you allow yourself to play, pointlessly, for a while. --Interviewed by Karen Schechner