The Story of Edgar Sawtelle Webcast Transcript
David: And I'm very interested in the creative process in general.
Oprah: I was going to say the process.
David: And other areas.
Oprah: I remember when I called you the first time, you were saying that you had had your jaws wired at some point and that brought about this whole idea of muteness.
David: Well, my jaws weren't wired. I had actually had very, very minor oral surgery, but it involved a stitch in a place that made it hard for me to talk.
David: And so—
Oprah: I guess in my imagination, I pictured you like this. (Indicating.)
David: Well, it was—it was hard enough to talk or it was hard enough to pronounce words that—explaining why I couldn't pronounce words was problematic so I just said, "I'm going to take—I'm just going to take a few days instead of not going anywhere I'll just do all the things I normally do, but I won't talk." And it was a very interesting experience because what I discovered was I began to observe—be a better observer of the world around me because I wasn't spending time talking. I was spending more time watching. And I made at the time—
Oprah: So you made a decision that "I'm not going to talk.: Right.
Oprah: Because you could have talked when you were talking like this. (Indicating.)
Oprah: So you said, "I'm not going to talk for a few days."
Oprah: And out of that, Edgar was born?
David: In part. His muteness was born.
Oprah: Was born.
David: Because I—I made a mental note at that moment that it's always interesting to have a character who is more observant than they would normally be. Most of us transact our lives and we're not paying attention to details because we know them so well.
Oprah: That's right.
David: So having a character who is especially good at observing is—is a real gift to a writer. And generally that's done by having the character be a stranger in a new place who comes in and sees it freshly for the first time or has a lot of questions or whatever. In this case, it struck me that you could have a character who was naturally observant because of their—because they—they didn't spend their time talking.
Oprah: I thought that was so powerful when you shared it with me the first time and even hearing it here now that how more powerful you become as an observer when you're not talking.
David: Yeah. And the other thing, part of that experience that day when I had the original idea was things sort of clicked together in a different way, which is the idea that dogs, in my life with dogs, what I've noticed is that they're extraordinarily good observers. They watch us. And I thought in writing about dogs it would be good to have a human character who could observe dogs as well as they can observe us.
Oprah: So did you have dogs growing up?
David: I did. My—my folks lived on a small farm in central Wisconsin, which is exactly the prototype for the Sawtelle farm but located further south in the state. And for about five years, they raised dogs. Various kinds of dogs. From about the time I was until I was 5 until I was 10. We'd had dogs as pets before then, and we had dogs as pets after then, but during that period, they were actually trying to raise dogs. It was something my mother had always been interested in. And so I grew up sort of during that sweet spot in childhood between 5 and 10 years doing odd jobs around the kennel, socializing the pups and so on. So they're a part of my life.
Oprah: Recently David took us to the area of northern Wisconsin that he had in his mind's eye when he wrote The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.
David (taped): I think the place where you grow up has tendrils in your mind and in your imagination and in your psyche that for good or for bad, they're here forever. The farm in the book is based on the farm that I grew up on transported out of central Wisconsin about a hundred miles north and set down here in the Chequamegon. When I look at farms like this, I have all the mixed feelings that I have about growing up poor in the country. It's a mixture of living close to the land and also living very close to disaster, really. It's hard to live here. It's not easy. You work for it. You earn it every day, or you lose it. I have been interested in dogs my whole life. From about the time I was 5 years old until I was 10 years old, my parents had a—had a dog kennel. There were dogs everywhere. Puppies everywhere. And that was my job to work with the pups. I loved it. In some ways, the best experience that a kid could have. I didn't grow up thinking I was going to be a writer. My only attempt at writing in high school was one short story that I wrote for a contest, and my motivation was simply to get a day off from school. To my tremendous surprise, I won and I set it aside and forgot about it and then 10 or 12 years later I came back to it and said, "I'd like to do that again. I'd like to see what I can do." Once the events get rolling in the story, Edgar is torn between staying and confronting the problems on the farm and leaving. There's a temptation for him, I think, to just head out into the woods and never come back. And so when I look out on this landscape, it pretty much embodies what I was thinking of. And so I've—I've come back to this spot many times. You can't imagine how hard it would be to find somebody if they—if they didn't want to be found here. When it came to writing Edgar's story, I wanted to take advantage of this setting that I knew, but I also feel like what I tried to do, at least, was take that land and remove all the people that I knew and install all new people. And that was part of the real fun of writing the story for me was I knew the land, but I didn't know the people, and I had to—I had to learn about them in the writing.