Instead of functioning as mere decoration or backdrop, the settings in David Guterson's novels influence the story and storytelling style. "A sense of place informs much of my work," explains Guterson. "It's something I can't seem to help." He grounds these settings with specific and authentic details gathered through extensive traveling in 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."
In 2003, with the publication of Guterson's Our Lady of the Forest, 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.
Christian Martin: To what degree do you control the progression of your narrative? How much is planned out? How much evolves unconsciously?
David Guterson: 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 I'm doing.
But the details are hazy to me; I'm going to discover them as I go, and learn as I go. I think without that, I'd get bored and not be able to finish. If I was executing a plan, I don't 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 extraordinarily 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. They're Seattle teenagers circa 1974, so they like to smoke dope and get lost in the woods. That's my own era and milieu. Neil goes on to become a high school English teacher — so did I. John William goes on to seven hermetic years in the woods — I 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. He's also got family problems — the only child of dysfunctional parents — so he's screwed up and a little off his rocker.
CM: When you're 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, "What's the appropriate landscape to explore this question?" This was the case with Our Lady of the Forest — I envisioned a novel about spirituality and belief, then, after that, I asked myself, "Where's this subject best explored?" 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 I'm pretty much stuck with this area; I've never lived anywhere else, and I don't know any other place, so it's sort of for-better-or-for-worse. I have to write about here, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's a good way to get to know a place inherently, without making any conscious effort to study it. It's my life, the world I walk around in and live in, and that gives me a lot of confidence when it's 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 don't feel that way about this place, and that's the result of being a native.
The other good thing is that we have a diverse landscape here. I don't feel I'm 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 haven't exhausted the landscapes of Washington state either; there's a lot to write about without repeating myself in terms of setting. I feel like a regional writer, but not by choice — it's just that I've always lived here.
CM: I've 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 you're hiking, or actually write in the forest?
DG: No, I didn't 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. He'd explain things about the mushrooms and I'd 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, it's 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, devil's club, ferns. What sort of natural history research did you do for this book?
DG: There's a book that I rely on, and have for a long time, called Cascade Olympic Natural History by Daniel Matthews. It's now in its second edition. Years ago, The Seattle Times asked writers, "What are the top ten quintessential Pacific Northwest books for you?" I mentioned this book among the top ten. That's the book I use to check on mosses and the names of things. It's a great book.
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