Sam Savage's first novel, Firmin, chronicled the coming-of-age misadventures of a very literate rat living in a bookstore in Boston's Scollay Square. Garnering praise from authors ("[O]ne of the most enjoyably surprising books I've read for a long time....This really is a book like nothing else," raved Philip Pullman) and critics ("Firmin is a hero in the Dickensian mode...with the sardonic shadings of Vonnegut, and the same explicit tenderness," wrote the Los Angeles Times), it was an unexpected success and a bookseller favorite of 2006.
The Cry of the Sloth, Savage's second novel, is the story of Andrew Whittaker, a slumlord, writer, editor of the barely-surviving literary magazine Soap, and ex-husband, told entirely through Whittaker's own writing. Letters, grocery lists, rental ads, and fragments of fiction make up this "scathingly funny epistolary pastiche" (Publishers Weekly, starred review). The Cry of the Sloth is an arch, hilarious, disturbingly existential novel; Andrew Whittaker is an unforgettable character, and Sam Savage is an extraordinary writer.
We were so impressed that we created a special hardcover edition for Volume #14 of Indiespensable.
÷ ÷ ÷
Sam Savage: I suppose it's a case of content as an extension of form, sort of the reverse of the saying that form is an extension of content, because I thought of how the novel would be before I knew what would be in it. I thought of something composed of all the writings of the character, so that meant that it had to be set at a certain epoch that is prior to cheap telephone calls and email.
My character had to be isolated, and there were only two places I could isolate my character culturally. That would be a smallish city in the Midwest or the South, which is where I come from. Because of the historical circumstances, you can't do the South in that epoch as a kind of historic desert, because of the events and conditions of that time. So it had to be the Midwest.
He had to write. He had to be an editor or someone who existed through his writing. He had to be divorced, so that he could write to his ex-wife. I moved his ex-wife to New York, so they couldn't talk directly. I had his phone disconnected. In other words, all sorts of things were determined by the idea that this man was going to be writing in letters.
I wrote the first letter, which is the one about the sheet rock falling in from the ceiling. Then shortly after that, maybe the next day, I wrote the third or fourth letter, which is a long sycophantic letter to one of his erstwhile writing buddies from college days, who is a successful novelist, in which he grovels and is very pretentious. Once I had that, I had the character. One letter was quite nasty, and another was quite self-serving and dishonest, and I knew who he was. From then on, he wrote the letters himself. I knew his situation, and things followed page after page.
Jill: What was so appealing about the idea of writing a novel entirely in letters?
Savage: The immediacy. There's no narrative; it's just the character speaking.It's a first person novel. There's no story being told; it's just being presented. The reader has to tell the story.
It's evidence. The novel is like the evidence table at a trial, when you have the gun or the rope lying on the table, or the bloody glove, and it is all the evidence of the event. So here you have all the evidence — that is, these various documents — and the story has to come from that. I present the evidence, and obviously I suggest the story, but the reader tells the story. I like this level of reader involvement and the immediacy of the writing. That appealed to me a lot.
Jill: The reader fills in the gaps.
Savage: The reader has to fill in the gaps and do a lot of the imagining. In other words, the reader imagines the replies, so that they know who these people are and what they might have said. The reader has to do that, and I think that's pleasurable for the reader. There are certain kind of stints where you figure it out. It has a bit of a puzzle aspect.
Jill: Does Soap have a real-life analogue? Did you ever run a literary magazine?
Savage: I was a poetry editor at a small magazine in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It was also political — Politics and the Arts, we called it. But it was nothing like Soap. It was much more engaged. Soap, you might say, has modernist pretensions. It was catastrophic financially, as these magazines usually are, but otherwise it didn't really resemble Soap. It was beautifully done, and Soap, we gather, is a pretty sloppy production, physically. It doesn't seem to be well-printed, even, with the pages not numbered and often out of order.
Jill: And the poems are occasionally illegible.
Savage: Yes. The magazine I worked for was beautifully done. What was similar was that I was poetry editor and I was inundated by submissions from people. Poems written on school tablets by old ladies in the mountains of North Carolina. It was horrible. I felt like Miss Lonelyhearts. It was heartbreaking. I wrote letters to each one of them, and I was so nice. But I could only do it for six months. It just drained me. Everybody in the world wanted to be published in this magazine, and most of their poems were unpublishable. I felt so sad. [Laughter] That was an experience, but I was kinder to them than Andy is to his contributors.
Jill: The comparison to Miss Lonelyhearts is a great one. I've read submissions for a couple of literary magazines, and I've wanted to send some letters like Andy does, at times.
Savage: Oh yes, I wanted to too! But I didn't. I was 23 at the time, and I was receiving letters from these older people, and I just felt so bad for them.
Jill: The interactions between Andrew and his tenants are hilarious. Do you have experience with being a landlord at all?
Savage: No, I've never been a landlord. I've been a tenant! [Laughter] I don't remember where the idea to make Andy a landlord came from. I certainly didn't want him to be engaged in a business that would require mental or spiritual commitment. He couldn't be running something that mattered to him. He had to do something more passive. And he had to have inherited it, because he had to be incompetent. He couldn't be selling cars, or running a big business. So he had to somehow have inherited a business which he didn't care about.
It was more or less a process of elimination. I wanted him to write letters, and it's possible that he would write letters so he didn't have to have so much face-to-face time with his clients, or in this case, his tenants. If he were running a tobacco shop, he wouldn't be writing his customers letters. Again, it's form dictating content in a certain way.
Jill: You'll start to think there's something incredibly poignant and sad about Andy. Then you'll read one of his letters to his mother's nursing home, or to Fern, and your sympathy evaporates.
Savage: He's full of contradictions. I try to put contradictions in characters. When I was quite young, I read a critic, though I can't remember who it was now, who was writing about Dostoyevsky. I loved Dostoyevsky, and I still do. This critic pointed out to me the fact that Dostoyevsky's characters are contradictory. They have opposite natures. For example, in The Brothers Karamazov, each brother has a dominant trait, but all the other brothers are in each brother. So Alyosha, the sweet one, is nevertheless racked by temptation like his brother Dmitri, and so on. This idea that a character is not a collection of traits but is a kind of tension of contradictory traits is very important, I think.
Whittaker has those. Fundamentally, he's not a mean man. He has flashes of anger, lewdness, and mockery, but he's not a cruel person in any deep sense. In fact, what he wants most of all is for people to love him. He wants approval. I think he's really quite ordinary in this way. He has all these modernist pretensions, and he wants to be a great artist, but he also wants people to like him. I think the mixture of these traits is what makes him live, if he lives.
Jill: The Cry of the Sloth makes me think of that study that shows that depressed people have a more accurate view of reality.
Savage: [Laughter] Well, they certainly think they do.
Jill: Andy is almost equally as hard on himself, especially by the end, as he is on everyone else.
Savage: Well, that's important. I think that an important aspect of humanizing him is the fact that he's so self-conscious and so ready to ridicule himself. He's a clown who is constantly putting on masks, and he's trying out personalities. With each different correspondent, he's someone different. He'll pose. He's a poser.
Somewhere near the end, he writes to his friend at Stanford and he says, "I've had this breakthrough. I've looked into myself, and there's nothing there." It's important that at the core of Whittaker, there's nothing there. There's a kind of void in which he's self-creating, he's constantly putting on masks, and he's doing this play for his audience. He ends up actually performing for imaginary characters. He has letters where he supposedly performs for this old lady across the street, who probably doesn't exist. His idea of personality is as performance rather than as a fixed entity. But he's aware of it. He's an actor who knows he's acting, and knows he's being a fool.
Again, one of the great characters in The Brothers Karamazov is the father, Fyodor Karamazov, who's this incredible buffoon. He's a horrible old man, the father of the brothers. But he's so funny. And he's funny partly because he ridicules himself. He says, "I'm a buffoon," and he acts like a buffoon. Shakespeare's fools do this also. They come forward and they say, "What fools we are." There is that element in Whittaker, this self-conscious buffoonery. That's always disarming. No matter how many objectionable traits somebody has, when they turn it around and begin to ridicule themselves, it's very hard to entirely dislike them.
Jill: Did you choose his name in part because it has a lot of good anagrams? [Editor's Note: Andrew writes some letters, frequently to the editor of his local paper, under pseudonyms that are anagrams of his name.]
Savage: [Laughter] You know who Andrew Whittaker was? He was my doctor when I was a child! I don't know why I chose Andrew Whittaker. I grew up in a tiny town in the South, and we had this doctor who drove around in a Mercedes-Benz. There were no foreign cars in those days, but he had a Mercedes convertible. He called us "chum." He'd say, "Hello, chum!" when I was seven or eight. No one said "chum" but Dr. Whittaker. His name was Andrew Whittaker, and he had nothing to do with this character, but for some reason, I just named him after him.
I didn't think of the anagrams for awhile. He'd been named a long time before I thought of making anagrams.
Jill: There are some pretty good ones in that name, though.
Savage: It did turn out well! It was good that he had so many letters in his name. That was just luck. Actually, in the first drafts of the book, I signed the letters with unrelated names, and then I realized I could make an anagram for one, and I finally found anagrams for all of them.
Jill: Andrew quotes Baudelaire at one point and says, "Maybe spleen really is the creative organ." Do you agree with that at all?
Savage: No, I don't think so. It can be, I suppose. But I wouldn't say that the splenetic attitude is particularly creative. It is in Andrew's case. And indeed I think he reaches his best moments when he's splenetic. But I wouldn't go farther than that.
Jill: I think some of Andrew's best language comes when he's being splenetic. For example, I loved the phrase Andy uses to describe Quiller's former girlfriend: "a mouse-faced leather-clad Lolita clinging like a monkey-child to his back." How do you think about language, in general?
Savage: I can say this. I just finished a novel a few weeks ago. It's also in the first person; it's an old woman talking. I had my rat-man Firmin talking in the first person, and Whittaker basically in the first person. I think that I'm fascinated by language as revelation of character, what you would call voice. I hear the voice, and once I hear that, I know. There are many ways you can create a character. You can create them by a collection of traits, or by their actions, but what fascinates me is how characters are created by the way they speak, by their voice. For me, language is revelation of character.
I don't know if I could write a novel another way. It's very restrictive in a way to always be in the first person. But when I hear the voice, then I know who the character is. He will have certain little verbal tics and things he does with sentences, and he will choose certain words. Firmin had them also. You hear it, and you know who he is. I'm fascinated by that aspect of language.
Jill: At one point, Andrew says, "Until you've tried it you have no idea how hard it is to write badly well." Was it difficult to write the novel sections, with Adam and Flo?
Savage: The bad novel? [Laughter] No. That was the easiest and the most fun. Those were I think the easiest parts, and I laughed harder writing them. I laughed at the little eggs looking like Adam's knuckles. I know some people might not think it was funny, but I thought it was very funny. That was the only part of the book where I really made myself laugh. It was the easiest part. For me, anyway, it's easy to write badly. [Laughter]
Jill: How did you decide to focus on the image of the sloth, and decide to make that a central theme of the book?
Savage: Andrew mentions it first in an early letter, where he talks about the weather, saying there's so much rain going on that he has moss growing on him, and so forth. That was all there was. It was really just a metaphor that he'd chosen in this letter complaining to his friend about the dampness and his own laziness. Where it comes back is through an image of himself, and his head being smaller than his body, his unusually small head. The metaphor was there, and then it just reappeared. I didn't plan it out; in fact, I didn't plan the novel out. I can't write to outlines. It was another thing, like the anagrams. It appeared and then it proved useful later, so it developed. I didn't plan on it being a theme that would run through the book. It just resurfaced.
Jill: The sections with the women, men, and children in sand, near the river, seem to me to be in a strange way the subconscious of the book. They're like dreams, in a way. How did you think about the role those sections played?
Savage: I had the really bad writing from Andy, and I wanted to say that he also can write well, and that he had the potential to write well. I think those are well-written, and I think they have a kind of peculiar power. I wanted to write something better for him, so that the reader would see that this man is not without his gifts.
They embody a kind of metaphysical despair. The fact that the people can't escape from this desert, and that's so much the metaphor of Andy's life. They have a kind of allegorical relation to the whole novel. It's a paralysis: we can either stay here and die of thirst, or we can go into the water and be eaten by crocodiles. So it does have that role.
Jill: They're beautiful, rather haunting pieces.
Savage: I was surprised by them, when I wrote them. The first one came, and then the others. I was taken with them; I thought, "I could do a whole book of these!" [Laughter] But I gave them to Andy instead.
Savage: I'm a great fan of The Good Soldier. I love it. I think it's one of the great novels of that century. I recently reread it about six months ago and it's perfectly terrifying. I'm not sure why, but it's one of the most disturbing books I know. We have disturbing books about mayhem, war, rape, and murder, and this is just about infidelity, but there's something very disturbing about it.
The character Firmin is almost based on the character in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground. He has the same manner of speaking to the reader as "you." In Notes from Underground, the character will say, "You find me ridiculous, don't you?" Firmin also does that. Firmin speaks about himself that way. "I'm a despicable character. I'm a sick man, I'm a weak man, and I think my liver is diseased," is how Notes from Underground begins. So Firmin had a very conscious relation to Dostoevsky. It's hard to say Dostoevsky's an influence, because that sounds so incredibly pretentious. [Laughter] I wouldn't want to say an influence, exactly.
Kurt Vonnegut. I like his humor. Gilbert Sorrentino. I think this book actually has bits of Sorrentino in it, although I don't have his ferocity. Or maybe I just don't have his courage. There are so many. It's hard to pick out one person. Most of the people I really admire are so grand I feel embarrassed saying that they are influences.
Jill: You mentioned you edited the poetry journal. Do you write poetry?
Savage: Oh, gosh. I did for so many years, so much of it, and most of it I threw away. I love poetry, and I wrote a lot, and I didn't publish much, very little. I found the quote unquote poetry scene very discouraging. I don't do it any more, and I think I was not very good at it. I found a whole box of my poems the other day, and I was looking through them, with 15 or 20 years distance on them. I saw a few that seemed all right, but I don't think they were very good.
Jill: You were born in South Carolina, I've read. I grew up there, too. Where specifically?
Savage: Camden. What about you?
Jill: A little town near Greenville called Easley.
Savage: Oh yes! And now you're way out in Portland, which is more like South Carolina than Wisconsin is, I can tell you that.
Jill: How did you end up in Madison?
Savage: I was in South Carolina until five years ago. I was in the country, near a tiny little town called McClellanville, which is north of Charleston.
Jill: I know McClellanville; I went there to help clean up after Hurricane Hugo.
Savage: We might have run into each other! We were there through Hugo. You saw the ruin; it's not such a ruin any more. It's being overrun by Charleston.
Anyway, we lived there for 20-something years, out in the woods. I have a cognitively disabled daughter, and she can't drive. We needed a city with public transportation, a city she could manage. Therefore, not somewhere like Chicago, but also not somewhere where you have to have a car to get anywhere. My son, her brother, was just finishing university here in Madison, so we had visited it. We came up for that reason, expecting to stay for just a couple of years while she finished high school, but we're still here, probably for good.
Jill: You've had a number of interesting jobs. What's one of the most interesting or bizarre work experiences you've ever had?
Savage:People find it bizarre sometimes that I went from defending my thesis at Yale for my PhD to working in a bicycle shop, but it seemed perfectly natural to me at the time. [Laughter] I actually think the most bizarre was probably teaching at university, but that's a whole other story.
The nicest job was working a crab boat off the coast of South Carolina. That was the most wonderful. I loved that. I was alone most of the day, and sometimes I wouldn't even hear the motor of another boat. It was beautiful, and I loved the birds, and the water. It was incredibly difficult to make any money doing it, but that was the nicest.
I worked as a carpenter, which was not very interesting. My wife worked, and I always had a little bit of inherited money from land that we had. Growing up in the South, we had lots of timberland. When I was young it was worth nothing, and as time went on, it became worth something, and we sold it. So I never faced starvation. I could always afford to just keep things afloat, because there was always a little bit there that made the difference.
Jill: I loved that book. I've been raving about it to people for the last couple of months.
Savage: I'm a big fan of his. I like his first book the best, The Mezzanine. I love those detailed descriptions of drinking straws, and things like that.
I recently reread Under the Volcano. I wondered, after 30 years or more when I first read it, whether it would hold up. Sometimes you're so disappointed. It did hold up. It was as I remembered.
I don't read as much as I used to. I don't read much in the way of contemporary people. I'm doing a lot of rereading. I reread William Gaddis's The Recognitions. Actually, I'm still rereading it. I have books in different places that I read at different times, and that's one I'm still reading. The sentences are so extraordinary, and often very difficult. You have to read it very slowly, and in no hurry. If you're in a hurry, you can't read it. I take my time, and I read very little at a time. There's so much in Gaddis's sentences; it's as though seven sentences have been put into one. They have so much meaning, and so many ramifications, that if you don't unpack them very slowly, you don't know what's going on anymore after a while. That's why I'm rereading it, because I know that the first time I read it, which was maybe five years ago, I missed a lot.
Jill: That could be a perfect bedside book, to read just a little of each evening.
Savage: Well, it is, except that you have to be wide awake. [Laughter] JR is one of my favorite books by Gaddis, too. It's almost all in dialogue, with the two speakers unidentified, and at first you think it's bewildering, but then it becomes quite clear. It's hilarious. It's so funny. It's such a satire on America. It's very pertinent, too, because it concerns a 10- or 12-year-old boy who manages to build a financial empire over the telephone. He takes a class at his elementary school on stocks, and then he gets on the phone and begins to buy. He builds an empire based on nothing. It's wonderfully funny. There's something almost perfect about that book.
On an unrelated note, the books I'm going to sign for the Indiespensable packages just arrived about three hours ago, and they look very nice. I'm going to spend the weekend signing my name, it seems.
That reminds me of one more thing about The Cry of the Sloth. Originally, I was quite a stickler about how I was going to include literally everything that Whittaker wrote. I had all his canceled checks, I had writings on mirrors, and other sorts of things. But of course, on a check there's the number and the signature and really nothing else, and the checks became so tedious! That was a case where I took poetic license and eliminated them. Nobody wants to read how much he paid for this or that! I sacrificed realism for convenience. [Laughter]
Sam Savage spoke from his home in Madison, Wisconsin, on October 16, 2009.
Books mentioned in this post