How art reflects nature: an interview with David Guterson

The stories of 52-year-old Bainbridge Island author David Guterson have much to owe Washington state, which serves as a powerful setting for everything he writes.
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David Guterson. (Harley Soltes, Random House)

The stories of 52-year-old Bainbridge Island author David Guterson have much to owe Washington state, which serves as a powerful setting for everything he writes.

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.

CM: Another element in Our Lady of the Forest that fascinated me was the way in which you wrote about the essence of the depressed Northwest logging town and the injuries that these communities have suffered over the past decade. Can you talk about how you were able to write about them so knowledgeably?

DG: For four summers, starting when I was 18 years old, I worked for the Forest Service on a brush disposal crew burning slash from clear-cuts. The town that I was in was called Randle. It's on Highway 12, between Centralia and Yakima, and between Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier. At that time, Randle was really a boomtown. We couldn't burn the slash fast enough. The mills were going 24 hours a day. In Morton and Packwood, the two nearest towns, it was the same way. They were going gangbusters on the logging. I've got long-term experience with these towns, beginning in 1974, when I was acquainted with people and knowledgeable about these places from having lived there.

Since then, as I've gone out hiking and climbing, I've passed through these towns and witnessed their demise. For nearly 25 years, I've been interested in this decline, watching the historical slide, traveling through and watching the disintegration. I think my depiction of North Fork in the novel comes out from all of that.

CM: How much of your novels depend upon their particular places? Could these stories be told as successfully in some other geographical location?

DG: I spend a lot of time putting landscape into my stories. I think if you change the landscape, you change the story. There's no way you can pull that element out without pulling out the characters or the plot or the point of view. Change any of those things and you've got a completely different story.

CM: Nicholas O'Connell, in his survey of Pacific Northwest literature, On Sacred Ground, concluded that literature from this part of the world often shares the trait of negotiating the relationship between people and place. Do you feel an affinity with this thesis?

DG: Well, I think that's true everywhere. People write the "New York Novel," the "Southern Novel," the "Western Novel" — set in the classic mythic American West — and the "Midwest Novel." I don't think it's unique to the Pacific Northwest that here we have a literature in which people are contending with landscape. It's universal; people are immersed in landscape and contending with landscape, and their lives are involved with landscape.

CM: How do you imaginatively enter into these worlds you portray? Whether it's in a Japanese internment camp, or a World War II battlefield, or a tavern in a depressed logging town, what helps you to go to these places?

DG: Part of it is gathering raw material via research so that you have data to work with, facts and notes. But it's also experiential, a matter of bringing your own mind imaginatively into the situation. Talking specifically about Snow Falling on Cedars, there's a description of this long train ride down to Manzanar. Well, it's not a train ride I've taken, certainly not in the 1940s, and not into internment. But I've been uncomfortable on trains and I've been hot and tired and hungry on buses. So I try to take those experiences and extrapolate from them, and then combine them with my research and notes. I take those two diverse starting points and bring them together in my imagination in order to render the experience on the page.

CM: When you're immersed in one of these worlds, is it hard to keep them separate from your waking reality?

DG: It's a struggle to get up in the morning, go to your desk and try to situate yourself again in the world of the story. And then it is a struggle to sustain that immersion. Like being in a dream and not waking up — that's the state of mind I'm trying to induce when I sit down to write: an immersion in the dream world of the story.

CM: Do you feel like you "push" yourself as a writer with each new book?

DG: I get pushed. Or pulled. Something draws me in. Then I'm stuck, for better or worse, with the challenges. Sometimes that's satisfying; other times, it's depressing. Sometimes I feel illuminated, sometimes I feel throttled. Another day goes by, another page or two or three, day in and day out, some of them good days, some of them bad.

CM: What do you think your role as a novelist at this point in history is?

DG: I think it's the same for me as it's always been for others. Nothing has really changed in terms of the relationship of the storyteller to the culture at large. People have always needed stories, and the role of the storyteller is to provide for that need, to allow people to have the experience of the story. Certainly people want to be entertained; they want to be seized. At the same time, the story should engage the deepest human questions. There's a necessity for people to ponder important questions. The story should create the context for the questioning, and I want to create an opportunity for readers to do that. The questions really deep inside of me are also the deepest questions for everybody else. I try to put those out in front of people.

CM: Do you have any over-arching hopes for your writing, as far as specific reactions in a reader or in specific questions you are asking?

DG: I want the book to linger with the reader. I want the reader to finish the book reluctantly; I want it to haunt them afterwards. I want them to have an emotional reaction to the book and feel something afterwards. I also want an intellectual reaction afterwards, so they feel some intellectual closure. That closure is not about answers, but it is important that they understand the questions. I don't want finality or a neat tidy package, but I want the questions to be clear, and I want there to be a certain sense of satisfaction. I strive for stories that have a final page that makes sense, so that when readers shut the book, they do so reluctantly but with understanding.

An expanded version of this interview appears in The Writer's Workshop Review.


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