Two predictions: The Outlander
will win at least one major award. And The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
will find a home on bestseller lists.
When we discovered these two remarkable debut novels and decided to feature them together in Indiespensable, Powell's subscription club, someone on staff proposed a joint interview with the authors. Great idea, right?
Except, wait: What did David and Gil have in common aside from a publisher (Ecco) and books coming out within weeks of one another?
Gil (short for Gillian and pronounced the same as Jill) had previously written two books of poetry and a collection of short stories.
Wroblewski (sounds like robe-less-ski) spent 25 years in software development before publishing this, his first book.
And yet The Outlander and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle share more than you might imagine: runaways, ghostly visions, improvised outdoor survival, scenes rendered so powerfully you may forget you're reading fiction (you may forget you're reading, altogether), and characters that linger long after you close the book.
Dave: Okay, to start: You're professional writers. We're talking today because of your skill with words and language. And yet, Gil, your novel's protagonist can't read. David, yours can't speak. What gives?
David Wroblewski: Interesting question.
Even before the book was written, I was interested in a character that had a close connection with animals. I had been thinking about that for a while when I had very minor oral surgery — very minor. But afterwards, for about a week, it was difficult to talk. One thing I learned from that experience is that not talking turns you into an observer, to a tremendous degree. If you don't talk for a week, your relationship to the world changes. That was the genesis for Edgar's muteness.
And one thing about a character that can't talk: If they're going to exist in the world at all, they have to act. They have to do things. That resonated for me, both with the idea of a character that has a connection with dogs, and also with the plot of the story in my head, in which the character has to act and can't act, both at the same time.
Gil Adamson: Why would I make this girl unable to write? Partly for historical accuracy. My grandmother, for instance, grew up with three brothers and one sister. The assumption was that there was no point in educating her. She knew how to read — she was taught how to read at home — so why would you bother with more? She wouldn't need to work. She was going to get married and raise children. For that you didn't need any kind of higher education.
I extended that a bit and wondered, What would happen to a neglected child if everyone figured she had had enough education, but in fact nobody had made the effort to find out?
I was speaking to the neglect of the character, and how you deal with a deficiency in yourself.
I know a number of people who've had severe dyslexia, serious problems with reading, and they've overcome it in a big way. They are masters of subterfuge, of self-protection. They will presuppose a situation in which they're going to have to read something in front of people; before you even know what has happened, they will steer you away from it. Out of self-protection. That's where it came from.
Dave: It probably won't shock you to learn that you're not the youngest debut novelists we've ever featured. How did living a bit before publishing these books impact your eventual subject matter? How did you come to these stories?
Adamson: I'd been reading a lot of what I would call "literary Westerns." Most were American. I'm Canadian, and it's a little unusual for Canadians to read quite as much American fiction as I was. I'd been reading Cormac McCarthy. And there's a book published in Canada called The Englishman's Boy. Clearly, the author went to school on the same literature as I did. I found it so rich, and the writing so fascinating and good, that it had me starting to think about Western-but-not-Western: a visit with the thing that makes Westerns work. When they work, why they work.
So I'd been reading very similar books, and I found myself starting to do a lot of research. As I say, writers follow their nose, and they read very odd books. I found myself reading a series called The Foxfire Books. Nonfiction, individual chapters, interviewing old folks in Appalachia about how you do everything: how you survive, how you live, how you skin a hog, how you build a cabin, how you make soap. Not only was the information fascinating, but because it was in the language of interview, the language of the individual people, it was completely captivating.
I sat down and asked myself, "You've written short stories. Can you write anything longer? Longer than, say, 60 pages? Let's find out."
I took what I'd been drowning myself in, and I used a poem from one of my books as an outline. Those two elements went together in such a way that the story took care of itself.
Luckily, over the many years it took me to write the book, I didn't lose interest. I don't know if that says something about me.
Wroblewski: I grew up in the middle of dairy country in Wisconsin, about as far from any major metropolitan area as you can get. I always assumed I was going to be an actor. I don't know why. I didn't have any reason to think that. In fact, when I finally did try it, when I was in college, I was really bad at it and didn't enjoy it.
But for some reason I'd always been interested in acting and theater, and I paid special attention to those things in my English classes. I paid a lot of attention when we went through Shakespeare, various plays and sonnets. But I spent most of my creative time in high school writing; that was the outlet available to me at the time.
I set writing aside when I went into theater, and then I set theater aside and subsequently had about a 25-year career in software development. Which, by the way, is a very creative field. I equate it more to kinetic sculpture than anything else, as an activity.
People think it's about mathematics. It's not at all about that. It's a different kind of clay, but it's just clay, and it teaches you a lot about building big intellectual structures and keeping them in your head, trying to figure out how they work, and understanding that they can work in one area and break in another. It's a good discipline for writing novels.
Adamson: David, you and I have talked about this before because my brother is a coder. I have absolutely no facility with math but, having a brother like that who insists on sharing his love of it with me, I see him sit down and he looks at code the way we read text. He has very strong opinions about the grace of code.
Adamson: He's got a real job, where he turns up at nine and leaves around nine. It's keeping him away from the thing he likes to do, which is to write code. We had a talk the other day, and I found myself giving him advice that I would give to an artist: You have to make financial sacrifices in order to do what you like because what you like isn't going to pay for a long time. Blah blah blah.
It's a very funny thing, actually, but David is right: It's not what we tend to think, ones, zeros, math, and all that. Once it becomes as complex as it has become.
Wroblewski: That's interesting to hear because I do think a lot of the same advice applies, at least at a process level.
When you're making something big, whether it's long-form fiction or a big piece of software, whatever that is, you're having a very intimate and extended conversation with the work materials themselves. Generally, when they're half-finished, they're talking back to you and saying, "Listen to me. I'm not going to be able to do what you want me to do. I'm going to have to do something else. You can either help me do that, or we're going to be fighting for the next couple years." Software teaches you to pay attention like that.
In terms of process, that's where I came from. But in terms of subject matter, it seemed natural for whatever bizarre reason to connect my interest in theater, at least as an observer, and my interest in dogs, in the form of this particular story.
Dave: David, you mentioned Shakespeare. Critics often reference him in relation to Edgar Sawtelle, Hamlet in particular. I'm curious how much his work, or that one play, was on your mind as you were plotting and writing the book.
Wroblewski: Hamlet was the initial reference point for the story. Very early on, that was a conscious decision. But I quickly began to subvert that as much as I could.
The word "retelling" comes up, but I'm very uncomfortable with it. I think of the story not as retelling but as evoking Hamlet. I was trying to draw on the much larger traditions of Shakespearean drama, things like the chaos of the elements, how weather and more elemental forces play a role in those stories. Witches, ghosts, haunting, poison — all those things appear in a lot of Shakespeare.
I appreciate that you said Shakespeare first and Hamlet second because that's the right priority. So the short answer is, yes, part of the original concept was: Take that story, place it in northern Wisconsin, and make dogs the stakes of the story. I grew up around a lot of dogs and have a lifelong connection to dogs.
Dave: Mary and Edgar both hear voices and experience visions. In The Outlander, Gil, we read about ghost stories and the miners' superstitions. For isolated moments in Edgar Sawtelle, David, we occupy the mind of a dog; and then there's the enigmatic character of Ida Paine.
What was it like to incorporate elements beyond reason and rationale into what are otherwise predominantly realistic novels?
Adamson: It was fun. There's something delicious about imagining a moment like that and not having to suffer the event, yourself. In the case of my book, it very slightly altered the tenor, as you say, of what is otherwise a very realistic book, and lifted it off the ground a bit.
There's a delicious darkness to fairy tales and tales of ghosts and giants, the very slightly bent-out-of-shape reality you see. I enjoyed bringing that into the story.
But also, I didn't know if I was writing a novel. I was very much just pleasing myself. I don't know how conscious it was; it was kind of a bedtime story I wanted to tell myself.
Wroblewski: I love that: a bedtime story you wanted to tell yourself.
Dave: Do we give ourselves different permissions when we tell stories on paper? You might feel self-conscious talking to someone face-to-face about a vision, whether you were describing your own or someone else's.
Adamson: Definitely. And there's also the ability, for the writer, to work on the telling until its inherent vulnerability is minimized. I don't think you can remove the potential for people to simply not believe it or not go with it, but if you write it well enough you can convince people that up is down and life is happening on Mars.
That's the nature of the beast. You, yourself, would have trouble coming up with whoppers like this, but if you write it, and you write it in a way that draws people in, you can get away with a lot.
In Edgar, the description of the ghost made of rain is just wicked because it's so realistic. It's a realistic vision, which is a neat thing.
Wroblewski: When I read a book, I want to live a life I couldn't possibly live otherwise, so I feel very reactionary about strict realism and the dogma around it that I encounter sometimes. There were a certain set of freedoms granted to me, given the genesis of this story, the allusion to Hamlet and ghosts and so on. But I think it's interesting to start with what you like to read, because we write what we like to read.
Wroblewski: Realism is only one tool that you use among many. I tend to think of it as imaginative fiction, using realism as a tool when necessary.
Dave: Your novels both feature runaways. Who comes to mind when you think of literary runaways? Does one in particular stand out?
Adamson: I'm reading Huckleberry Finn at the moment. That's the classic. I'd never read the book before, but I know it intimately because my father read it to me when I was very young. I remember that it had this terrible, strong quality. I suppose it got deep into my brain. I'm basically reading it now for the first time, again. That's the one I think of.
Wroblewski: That's also the first one that comes to mind for me. Although in the case of Edgar Sawtelle, the more explicit reference is to Mowgli in The Jungle Book, which isn't exactly a runaway story. It's more of a lost child story, but it's the one that Edgar chooses as his own reference point for what's going on.
Adamson: It's interesting that those are both debatably children's stories. Maybe less so Huckleberry Finn, but it seemed to work on me as a kid.
Dave: If a customer is standing in our checkout line with your book and one other, what other book would most excite you to discover in that customer's hand? And you're not allowed to pick a book by the other author on this call.
Wroblewski: I happen to be reading Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen right now, and it's wonderful. It's the kind of writing — lush, Victorian prose — that I'm not sure could even be published anymore. It's just a delight.
Adamson: That's a very hard question. Writers read for such peculiar reasons, and we read with the nuts and bolts in mind.
I guess I'd have to pick a book by Howard Akler called The City Man. It's the story of a newspaper man in Toronto who is, for various reasons, fresh off a mental breakdown. He's sent on a job to investigate pickpocketing gangs.
It doesn't sound exciting, but it's the most amazing story, the way it's written. And the story itself is beautiful. The writing is completely different from my own. It's a tidy little gem, and it makes you want to be in that city at that time with those people.
Dave: Both of your novels dwell on the distinction between wildness and domestication. We see dogs and horses that exist somewhere on the spectrum between wild and domesticated, but the real conflicts in both novels stem in part from where the people fall on that spectrum.
Wroblewski: Certainly in the case of Edgar, that was very much on my mind. You can't talk much about dogs without almost immediately getting to this question: What is the difference between the wild form of a dog and the domesticated form of a dog? If you follow that just a little ways, which I love to do — I'm sort of a junkie on dog science and all the great books of dog nonfiction out there — you see that those barriers in terms of behavior evaporate.
It's very hard to point to one trait and say, "This means you're a domestic. This means you're not." And in fact our connection as human beings to dogs, and what we call domestication, goes back so far that we don't even know when it began. It certainly began before domiciles existed, so the word domestic is sort of a misnomer. The word that gets used in the scientific literature now, which I find interesting, is co-evolution.
When we hooked up with wolves, everybody changed. We know it was wolves, and wolves became this other species that we call dogs. It seems almost inevitable that the people involved, or whatever you want to call "people" at that point because it could be a hundred thousand years ago or more, they changed, too, in different ways.
We talk about dogs as if human beings brought them in out of the wild and did them this great favor of domesticating them, but that relationship much more likely was of mutual benefit, and both parties changed in the process. To me, that's a metaphor that has no limit, and a lot of the story I was trying to write explored that metaphor in terms of the human beings and in terms of the animals, and explored the idea that wildness and domestication appear in both.
Adamson: That's really neat. And it makes me think of the difference between dogs, which I've always assumed came to humans for their own reasons, and horses. If humans hadn't learned how to domesticate horses, they never would have come near humans. Ultimately, though, you wind up with these unusually well-tuned and very affectionate human-horse relationships. A tremendous amount of training has to go on. The human has to be trained as well as the horse.
There's a woman who's all over YouTube at the moment. She rides bareback and without a bridle, which in itself is pretty unusual. And the thing that keeps striking me, when I see it, is how amazingly trained the horse is. The horse is the star. There must be a bottomless education that goes on between them to do this one simple thing: ride around in a circle, change direction, stop, gallop, and kneel, all without a bridle.
Dave: It reminds me of Edgar with his dogs, such finely tuned communication. Literally: simply tensing your thigh and having the horse react to its meaning.
Adamson: The horse has to know what it means.
Dave: You need an outward communication, but the definition has to be shared and understood.
Wroblewski: This gets back to the very first question that you asked about language. In the world of dog training, at least, a common metaphor is "constructing a private language" between the person and the dog. Training is the outward form, but the inward form is the construction of a language, with which to say what is important between the two of them. That's probably the most accurate way of describing what training is.
Dave: Gil, I want to ask about Mary. You never exonerate her for the murder she commits. Judgment falls outside the scope of the novel. What challenges did that pose, or how did you walk that line?
Adamson: It's been interesting to see reviews and descriptions of the book. People will say that she has killed her husband, "who was a brute." Or he was "beastly."
He's not a nice guy at all, but what she's done is wrong. She knows it. It's part of the reason she's suffering. She knows she can't exonerate herself; neither is she interested in doing that.
For me, that was the whole question. We've all done bad things. Perhaps we haven't killed anyone with a shotgun, but how do you deal with the fact that you have made drastic errors in your life?
There's a Woody Allen film; I guess it's Crimes and Misdemeanors. At the end, as is common with Allen, there's a philosophical discussion between two characters. If you've done something horrid — and one of them has killed his girlfriend — does God see? Does God know, or do you get away with it? They have a very interesting back-and-forth, coming from two different perspectives.
I think it's an unanswerable question. I had no interest in making her a woman who fought back against a terrible guy and did something justified. To me, it is much more interesting that she carries this crime with her and doesn't let herself off the hook. I had no interest in letting her off the hook.
But because readers like her, you worry about this person, you want it to be justifiable. Maybe he was a horrid person. That's sort of the nature of fiction. Shakespeare is full of unsympathetic characters, and yet you do get very involved in their stories and you do worry about them.
There's an amazing book by Cormac McCarthy called Child of God. The main character is just a freak. A monster. And you're scared to death for him. It's the nature of the reading experience and probably the nature of the writing experience that you don't have to be engaged with a perfect creature. Much more interesting if they're unresolved.
Wroblewski: It may be more difficult to engage with a perfect creature, since we're imperfect.
Adamson: Yes. The white hot elements of literature are about that whole discomfort.
Dave: In the process of working on these books, what was the last part you wrote to your satisfaction?
Dave: Define satisfaction as loosely as you please.
Adamson: I don't mind the last line of my book. I fell across it and sort of went, "Oh. You're done. Stop now."
Dave: Did you actually write it last?
Adamson: I wrote the book sequentially. I started at the beginning, and I just kept telling myself the story until it came to an organic end. Then I stopped.
I don't know how common that is. I was at a writers' festival a few days ago, and two novelists were talking about how they write their novels in chunks — maybe they'll write the middle first, then the beginning, and then they make the connective tissue between the two main pieces of meat. I'd be uncomfortable doing that because I'd be afraid that the connections wouldn't be strong enough.
Wroblewski: I've been through so many drafts of this book that in the end I didn't have a linear experience of it. Of the novel's five parts, though, the section that probably fits your question best is the fourth, which is called "Chequamegon," where Edgar runs off. That was a real delight for me to write.
It was the section of the book that I knew the least about, and yet it had the most well-defined beginning and end points. I knew that it began when Edgar stepped off the property and it ended when he stepped back on. I knew that I wanted him to find a certain set of meanings in the world while he was away, but I was open to almost anything happening during that time. It was a blast to write because of its simple structure. I was able to go with the events rather than having to coordinate a lot of plot.
Dave: Before I let you go, do you have a question for each other? Something you're curious about?
Adamson: I do. This is a question I'm asking a lot of people. The Outlander is my fourth book — I have two books of poetry and a book of short stories — so I've done this before: I've published a book and got back to writing. But for some reason I can't remember how to do it.
My question to you, David, is: How do you expect yourself to get back to writing? Or have you already started up again?
Wroblewski: I'm in that process right now. I'm trying to get another novel launched.
Part of the difficulty is that I spent so long writing this book that it became a lifestyle and not a project.
Wroblewski: There were all the drafts that came before and always more drafts to come. In fact it's very strange now to know that it's done. I can't go back and revise. I've had to be very careful about opening up the advance reader edition because I know that the moment I do I'm going to go into revision mode.
I'm glad we stopped when we did, but starting from scratch means having no previous drafts to work on, just a bunch of amorphous ideas. All I can think to do is to trust to engage the material. Make some clay and start playing with it. See what happens.
Adamson: And just have fun, right? The trick is to find your way back.
Wroblewski: The temptation is to treat the early stages of the process with the same sort of rigor that you treated the last stages of the process. That doesn't work. It backfires immediately. Your inner child goes into rebellion. You have to relearn how to do things in a very open way, even if you have very specific goals and you imagine very specific outcomes for the story.
It's this strange mix of knowing exactly what's going to happen and having no idea what's going to happen. Some points are completely tangible and absolutely cinematic in my mind, and then there are vast stretches that are completely blank.
Adamson: Me, too.
Wroblewski: And both extremes are bad, right? I want to bring them both toward the middle. I know my experience with Edgar was that when I got to those scenes I knew to the minutest detail what they would be like, they didn't turn out that way at all.
It's an exercise in mental flexibility, but I've only done this once. I'm starting out on book number two, so I'm really in no position to answer this question. I'll let you know in a couple years.
Dave: Very good. And since it's only fair that Gil need not be in a position to answer your question, David, that really opens up the options.
Wroblewski: I do have a question. What did you learn about Mary as you wrote the book that you didn't know about her when you started? Or, what do you think Mary learned about herself over the course of the story?
Adamson: It's very similar. Mary started off in a poem called "Mary." Other people seem to like it, but it didn't work as a poem, I felt. In retrospect, my dissatisfaction with the poem is that I wasn't finished with the story. The Mary in the poem is far more horrible, quite crazy, far more negative, and her story winds up in a completely different place.
I had full intention of writing a more complete story of that person, but within a chapter or two she was completely changing, partly because I knew I couldn't live with that character for very long. It became pretty obvious. And also because the more you write, the more the story asserts its own logic, and the logic dictated a change.
I learned great affection for her. I started off with not much affection for the poem's character, and by the time I was done I loved all my characters, the crazy and the nutty and Mary, who has her problems.
She learns many skills over the course of the novel to keep herself alive. She learns to be part of the world she's now in, the world of the wilderness. But she also learns that she's capable. She started off, at some level, helpless in her mind and helpless emotionally. By the time she's done, she's pretty well on her own two feet.
That was a great joy for me, to end up there, starting off where I did and starting off where she did.
David Wroblewski and Gil Adamson spoke by telephone on April 23, 2008.