As an introduction and welcome to readers in Oprah's Book Club, I'd like to offer the following three memories of mine, all connected, in one way or another, to the writing of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.
In my earliest memory—earliest of any kind—I am kneeling on the couch in the living room of our house in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, looking out the picture window. Our collie, Princess, is perched on the cushion beside me, and together we are watching three women coming up the sidewalk. I can't be much more than 2 years old, and I don't recall our visitors' purpose, but I must have set my hand against Princess as we looked out the window, for I can vividly recall the warmth and reassuring mass of her body and the texture of her fur against my fingertips. I suppose that moment is the beginning of my interest in the canine world, though who can pinpoint such things? Perhaps I was just born with a kind of certainty about dogs and our relationship to them. What I know is this: in my memory of that instant, there is no boundary between us. I am me, yes, and she is her, but we are also somehow the same. We are connected as we watch the women approach. They are talking and laughing, swaying along in a friendly, triangular formation. Then they are at the door. They are wearing woolen coats: It must have been spring or fall. Fall, I think. It may have been my birthday, because they are carrying something, and there must be some reason this otherwise ordinary afternoon has stayed with me all these years. One of the women reaches out. The doorbell rings.
When I was about 12 years old, someone abandoned a half-grown pup on the road near our farm. This pup ran wild through the woods for I don't know how long, appearing to us periodically as a flash of orange and white bolting through the field. One morning, my father spied him eating the gravel off the road. In time, we were able to coax the dog into the yard, and he become "my" dog, though, considering that he refused ever to come into the house or even allow a collar to be put on him, it was difficult to know who was adopting whom. We guessed he was half collie, half German shepherd. I named him Prince. For some reason, during those years, there was an explosion in the skunk population, and Prince took it as his sacred duty to corner any skunk that trundled into our yard, keeping the animal trapped (often under the bathroom window) with what was to me a mortifying and fascinating singlemindedness, an electric ferocity in his movements. My father, worried about rabies, forbade us from going outside when this happened; he would go to the gun case and fetch his shotgun and trudge out the back door. Long before he arrived on the scene, however, Prince would have been soaked with scent, repeatedly. I spent many summer mornings making Prince stand still for a bath, scolding him. I remember his response: an unrepentant, almost prideful, gaze, which seemed to say, "No regrets. I can see what's right and wrong."
The connection between Prince and Forte and the Sawtelle Dogs
A final memory: one afternoon, now years ago, as I was struggling to revise a draft of Edgar Sawtelle , my partner, Kimberly, gave me this advice: Imagine someone reading Edgar's story on a long train ride home from work. That was all she said, nothing more, yet it is probably the single most useful bit of writing advice I've ever gotten. Before she turned away, I'd already filled in the details: that person was a man, and he'd had a dispiriting day at work; he'd grown up in the country, but now he worked in the city, and on that particular day he was feeling as if he'd lost his way in life—that his life had been reduced to a train ride from here to there and back, over and over again. I understood that the man was not me, exactly, but rather some version of me, and because this was so I could remind him: you were once connected to the wild world. Don't forget what that was like. I could see him, alone in his train car. As the fluorescent ceiling lights gradually superseded the dusk outside, the window glass became a long, black mirror. The man's head was bent over his book. I badly wanted to talk to him, but it was impossible, and eventually, when I had watched him long enough, I turned my attention back to the manuscript and got to work.
These memories reflect, I'm sure, some of my lifelong preoccupations, one being the extraordinary quality of our relationship with dogs, because The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is unabashedly a dog story. A love story, in fact. Writing it has given me a chance to consider how intertwined our species have become. How, over millennia, we've changed dogs and how dogs, in turn, have changed us. How the rituals and obligations of animal companionship also grant moments that transcend human experience. Another preoccupation of mine, not unrelated to the first, has to do with the nature of wildness in the human character. We glimpse it in ourselves every day, from the surge of emotion that rises from nowhere to the flash of inspiration we can't explain. Even memory itself, the very core of our identity, remains slyly feral, heedlessly retrieving all manner of incident and image, indifferent to whether its discoveries are burdens or gifts.
Since the book's publication, readers have occasionally turned to me with questions. While it's true that I love talking about Edgar's story, I've also found myself admitting that I don't want—and don't have— any final answers , any overarching, ambiguity-smashing point of view. Writing a novel may not absolutely require losing perspective, but I nonetheless have. Edgar, Almondine and the people in their world feel as real to me as anyone I have ever known, and thus, by turns transparent, inexplicable and fascinating. It is as true for the writer as for the reader that any novel worth its ink should be an experience first and foremost—not an essay, not a statement, not an orderly rollout of themes and propositions. All of which is to say: stories, too, are wild things.
I am proud and excited that The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has been selected for Oprah's Book Club . My highest hope is that it does for you the simple work novels were meant for: to create, for days or weeks, that delicious doubled life of the here-and-now folded back upon the there-and-then.
Meet some real-life Sawtelle dogs.
Printed from Oprah.com on Sunday, March 9, 2014
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