We're told that there are a mere handful of basic plots in all of literature. Reviewers of your book mention threads of Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and glimpses of characters such as Antigone, Orestes and Electra. As you wrote, to what degree were you aware of these resonations? Did you consciously heighten characters or situations to point up those literary memories?
Hello, Katherine, great questions, and ones I'd love to ask many other writers as well. In the case of Edgar, I knew from the start that I might draw from certain sources, like Hamlet and Kipling's Mowgli stories, so that was a conscious decision on my part. Those stories have their own sources and allusions as well, and I wasn't particularly interested in tracing these things out the nth degree. I also didn't know in advance just which elements of those stories might turn out to be important, only that they were stories that moved me, and that I wanted to think about them through writing. But I should also immediately add that the whole business of allusions, references, sources and so on was a distant secondary interest to me. My main interest was and is with Edgar's story, and the work of grounding it in the present day of that world.
I suspect most novelists feel that way: It's much more fun to look for fingerprints in someone else's story than in your own. Maybe that's because you've spent the vast majority of your time sweating the line-by-line details, which is where a story lives or fails to live. And if you believe, as I do, that a long story like a novel is a braid of many threads of concern (recurring images, words, sounds, ideas, literary references), then the idea of a "plot" starts to have less meaning anyway, at least as something that can be borrowed. To me, plot is a sequence of turning points in a story. That's it, and it's not much. So though there may be a set of basic plots that we all recycle (and I'm not totally convinced of that) all the real substance of a novel comes from elsewhere. In The Story of Edgar Sawtelle there are lots of private references to things that matter only to me, or that only a few people in the world would recognize, but they are almost as important as any literary reference. Here's an example: Many people have suggested that the name “Forte” was an allusion to the character Fortinbras in Hamlet. The first time someone mentioned that to me, my jaw dropped. I saw the connection, but in fact "Forte" was in my mind only (as far as I know) because it was an inside reference to a great big dog that we had on the kennel when I was a kid, the center of a number of memorable incidents. Readers aren't intended to know that, and it doesn't matter if they do or don't—though my family might recognize "Forte" and know some personal history applies. It's just one of the little buried secrets that made the writing, and the name, meaningful to me.
Finally, there's another dynamic at work in the writing of a novel, something that might sound esoteric, but it's really the meat and potatoes of the experience. This has to do with drafting and revision. A novel is complex thing, organically designed, and it turns on details that have a surprisingly large effect on the final result. No matter what one's intentions when setting out, once a novel begins to take shape, it's going to assert its own agenda. I'm not talking about individual characters “taking over” or any such thing, which is a misstatement about how writing works. What I mean is that apparently insignificant details accumulate and repeat. No master plan involved, that's just the way things come out. In revision, you realize that the story isn't just about, say, skydiving, which was the surface subject matter. You've also kept returning to moments in which people take emotional risks of one kind or another. Or find themselves unable to trust someone or something. Or simply fall, physically fall, through space. In the revision process, you notice this, you revise to jigger these ideas into a more potent configuration, to play them off one another.
Over the course of an entire novel, that kind of thing happens many times, and it is far and away more important than any predetermined literary heritage. Or rather, I should say that this is how the “conscious heightening” that you asked about happens, and it is the same whether it involves another well-known story or a less remarkable set of details. In the end, the primary influence on any story is that very story, when it is half-made.