They're the characters, situations and mysteries about this novel that have been keeping you up at night...now, get answers from the author himself! Watch David Wroblewski answer your questions on video and read his responses to more of your burning questions about Oprah's Book Club pick, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.
David Wroblewski Answers Your Questions on Video—Watch Them All!
More Answers about The Story of Edgar Sawtelle:
How Structured Was Your Writing Process?
My question is: How structured were you in your writing of this novel? Did you have a set time during the day to write? Were you ever blocked with a loss of words, literally? I am so looking forward to reading this book, and not even knowing you personally, I am so proud that not only is this your first novel, but of such standards that it's on Oprah's list. I'm sure there are a lot of other hungry readers anticipating getting their hands on this book. Best wishes to you, and I'm sure there will be other works to look forward to.
Hi, Sheila, thanks for your question and your kind wishes. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle was written and revised almost entirely while I was working full time at my other career, software research and development. That work tends to have wildly busy periods followed by stretches of relative slack, so my writing schedule was haphazard. I wrote whenever I had the time: early in the morning, late in the evening, lunchtime, weekends. Nowadays, when I have a choice, I tend to prefer morning writing, but I'm not doctrinaire about it. (Some writers are, and there are days when I envy them.) What's far more important to me than the time of day is simply that I write every day at some time—even if it is a quick revision. I've learned that just tweaking up a single paragraph of a story-in-progress can keep me thinking about the imaginative situation all day long, even if I'm swamped with other work.
As a result, I don't think anyone would call my writing practice "structured." Far more than I'd like, I work in boom and bust cycles. My only saving grace is that once I'm cooking with a draft, I'm almost entirely lost to the work. I'm pretty good at being obsessed.
As for your question about being blocked, the answer is: Yes, I did reach a point where I was stopped cold. I had written half of a first draft of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. That draft was narrated by Edgar directly, in first person point of view, using a retrospective tone. By the time I'd reached the beginning of Part 3, I just could not bring myself to continue writing. Something was wrong, but I didn't know what, and my imagination seized up. I set the book aside for more than a year. Because I didn't know why the well had gone dry, I starting thinking maybe the whole thing was just wrongheaded. I would go back to Part 3 once a week or so and see if the passing of time had made the problem magically disappear, but as soon as I tried to write new prose in Edgar's voice, things ground to a halt again. As you can imagine, this was not a recipe for a happy life. Eventually, I decided I was either going to have to throw myself at the problem or give up the book for good. I resigned my job, making two promises to myself: (1) I would have exactly 12 months to get a draft completed and revised, and (2) there would be no wriggling out of the work, no matter how hard it turned out to be, because I sensed I was never going to write another book unless this one was completed, even if it turned out to be a bust. The first promise was easy to keep—I knew I'd be out of money after a year. The second was much harder, and I decided to address it by breaking the work down into less daunting assignments.
My first assignment was to read what I had from start to finish. Not pleasant: first draft is inevitably rough. My second assignment was to switch the point of view. I went through the manuscript and converted the narrative from first person to third person, page by page. This was tedious, but not especially difficult. By the time I'd finished, I understood why I'd been blocked: remaining strictly within Edgar's point of view, using his "voice" to tell the story, was simply too constricting—certain events needed to be seen from outside Edgar's experience. I noticed again and again how much more freedom the third person point of view afforded me, both in diction and in perspective. Looking back on it now, I feel I should have understood this all along. In fact, even before I got stuck, I had written the first of Almondine's chapters as an experiment, and I liked it. So I had already departed from a strict first person point of view. But I had been forcing my idea of the storytelling onto the material rather than listening to what the material needed and had gotten myself into one of those immovable object vs. irresistible force situations.
Once the point of view was switched, I finished an enormous, rambling first draft in about nine months and a slightly more focused second draft about six months after that (and going back to work in the meantime). I revised the whole book several more times (we're talking years, here) before I finally began submitting it to agents for literary representation. And of course, it was revised several times yet again working with my editor at Ecco Press.
What Is "Crazywalking"?
My husband wants to know what "crazywalking" is. He looked it up online and could not find anything. Is that something you invented?
Hi, Tracy, your husband did some good sleuthing there. He's right: "crazywalking" is a term invented for Edgar's story, but it is not an invented training practice. The idea was taken from an experience I had in the early 1990s in a puppy training class at the local Humane Society. The teacher assigned the following homework: Find an open space, she said, and walk in a triangle of about a dozen paces per side for five minutes. We were not to correct the pups, but simply to hold the lead and march clockwise from point to point, making abrupt turns. Periodically, we were to reverse course and head counterclockwise. Of course, as soon as I tried this, my pup would bound away after something (anything) that caught her attention, only to discover that her human partner was heading elsewhere.
To my amazement, after a few minutes my pup began to heel alongside me, having gotten the idea that I might just be worth paying attention to. I hadn't said a single word—actions were speaking far more loudly. Over time, I modified the exercise to go in a zigzag path, which kept it interesting for us both. When it came to writing Edgar's story, I made this kind of random, unpredictable walking one of the cornerstone exercises for the Sawtelle dogs. Because it was so simple, it was naturally something Edgar might do to help out, even as a child. One day the word "crazywalking" showed up on the page, from who knows where. I liked that it was an invented word, and I kept it. In my imagination (this is not specified in the book), Edgar was the person to coin the term.
By the way, I do still do some version of that simple exercise with my dog, Lola, though she is 7 years old. It's a great warm-up before we go for long walks.
Why Did You Make Edgar Mute?
I was curious as to why you chose for Edgar to not speak? Isn't very rare that a person can hear but not speak? I love the detail you give about the kennels and how the dogs are trained and the interactions between Gar/Trudy/Edgar/Claude and their dogs. You have written a beautiful story, and I have truly enjoyed every page! Thank you.
Hi, Diane, you've asked a simple question with a complicated answer. To begin with, as I understand things, it is possible, but quite rare, for a person to be mute but not deaf. When caused by some kind of brain injury (a stroke, for example), the condition is known as aphasia.
In fact, when the original idea package for this novel arrived on my mental doorstep, the main character was already a mute boy. I didn't know the boy's name, why he was mute, whether he had been mute all his life or whether he would always be mute. All I knew was that his inability to speak was going to be essential to the story, which would (I guessed) mainly treat it as a fact of his life. There were a couple of other items in that idea package, including a 90-acre farm I knew very well, because I had grown up on it, and dogs—lots of dogs—dogs with some quality worth fighting for. Because of his speech deficit, I suspected that the main character (who was going to be smart, a prodigy really) would find a way to channel his natural desire for speech into a gift for working with the dogs. I don't how ideas arrive for other writers, but that's what I was handed. All that, plus a very old, very well-known storyline that seemed to me to have unfairly lost its power to move people.
So where did those ideas come from? I only have guesses. I had long been interested in language, both human and artificial, as a phenomenon. Much of my career in software research and development has been spent creating programs that analyze human language for various purposes, and I'd ended up working alongside anthropologists, linguists, lexicographers and psychologists, picking up tidbits and anecdotes, learning to see the world the way they see it. If you eat lunch with a bunch of linguists, you'll soon notice them stopping with their forks half-raised, cocking their heads at some offhand expression of yours, exchanging meaningful linguist-glances and muttering, "Can you get that? I can get that." Meaning, they can see how what you just blurted out might be a grammatical utterance. This can be unnerving, though interesting, especially if you are willing to ask dumb questions.
By hanging around with people like that, I was exposed to the scientific literature describing language—how it works, and also how it sometimes fails to work. This in turn led me to some popular books on language: Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, for example, and Oliver Sacks' book Seeing Voices, a wonderfully thoughtful history of sign language. In typical Sacks fashion, Seeing Voices includes tangential explorations of many topics, including the story of Victor, the "wild boy of Avignon," one of the most famous cases of a child growing up in the wild and coming late to human language. I saw connections to my literary interests: as a lifelong reader and re-reader of Kipling's Jungle Book, I was fascinated by the idea of a character who can talk with wolves. Finally, perpetually fascinated as I am by dogs, I was struck all over again by the uncannily communicative fabric of our relationship with dogs—how we "read" each other so well, without the benefit (or curse) of language. Somewhere along the way, I discovered a book by Vicki Hearne entitled Adam's Task, which took as one of its main arguments that training a dog meant undertaking a morally loaded and highly linguistic joint activity. For example, Hearne talks at length about the "syntax" of the communication between a rider and her horse, and the thoughtful effort required for a dog and a person to come to agreement about the meaning of the simple word, "fetch."
So all those ideas were already in the mix. Life experience had some role as well. I once had some minor oral surgery. Nothing very serious, but for about a week I was left with some stitches that made it hard to talk intelligibly. Rather than continually explain what was going on, I took it as a challenge to see how much of my life I could transact without talking. The experience made a huge impression on me. Muteness, I discovered, exempts you from a certain social overhead. It frees you up to watch. And so as soon as I knew Edgar was mute, I also knew he had a compensating gift for intense observation.
As it turns out, I wasn't especially interested in imagining or diagnosing a specific cause for his muteness—I simply wanted to remove one aspect of language from his character, to make him inward, self-reliant and perceptive. In the end, Edgar's condition is more literary than medical. At the time, the writing felt like ignorant, blind groping. It never progressed as rationally as the above paragraphs might suggest. Only in retrospect, with the finished story in hand, do certain ingredients seem clear. What drove the writing on a day-to-day basis was simple fascination with the events in Edgar's world and a desire to know how they would play out.
How Do You Pronounce "Sawtelle" and "Almondine"?
I'm on the last 90 pages of the book and can hardly put it down. My question is about the pronunciation of the names "Sawtelle" and "Almondine." Loved the book. I became allergic to dogs in the past few years, but in the pages of this book, I was able to feel as if I were cuddling up close to a dog and oh, how good that felt!
Hi, Janet, yes, there are a few tricky names in the book, and you are not the first to wonder how they are pronounced. Here's a quick pronunciation guide for the names you mentioned, plus a few others.
Sawtelle: Saw-TELL (the final "e" is silent)
And the trickiest of all:
Chequamegon: Sha-WAH-me-gon (the q is pronounced like a w )
As for Edgar's first and last name, I chose them based purely on their sound. When first starting the book, all I knew was that I wanted the main character's first name to have two syllables and begin with an open vowel sound. Don't ask me why that was important, it just was—right from the beginning my mental placeholder for the main character's name was a two-note melody: AH-ah. But I didn't have any real syllables attached to the melody.
I toyed with lots of names, none felt perfect. Then I came across "Edgar." I immediately locked in on it, for several reasons. First, it fit the sound pattern I'd been imagining. Second, I didn't know anyone named "Edgar," so the name didn't come loaded with preconceptions. It had a slightly formal sound to it, too, which I thought was appealing. Finally, I liked that "Edgar" could be shortened to "Gar" for his father's name—by then I also knew that the main character was named after his father. By making them Edgar/Gar I could avoid the confusion that would inevitably arise in scenes where two Edgars appeared.
For months "Edgar" had no last name. While driving home from work one day, I heard the name "Sawtelle" on the radio, and it just clicked. I loved the musicality of it, and it worked together with "Edgar" beautifully—the hard "g" in his first name offset by the soft "s" in Sawtelle. Unfortunately, I don't remember what I was listening to on that drive—not even whether it was music or a news segment on NPR—so I can't trace the source any further. All I know is that by the time I parked my car in the driveway, Edgar had a last name.
How Do You Know So Much About Training Dogs?
I found the writing about crossbreeding and training dogs fascinating and detailed. Since you are not a breeder or trainer, how did you know so much about this?
Hello, Joanne, I’m glad to know that those aspects of the story interested you, since they were great fun to write. To begin with, I should say I am not a dog trainer or a dog breeder. What I know about those topics comes from a combination of life experience and research. The life experience dates back to my childhood. My parents ran their own breeding kennel for about five years, beginning when I was five years old. In fact, the Sawtelle farm is modeled after the small farm I grew up on, and where that kennel operated. Many of the details in the story are taken from that experience—as well as the harder-to-isolate sense memories I can tap from a childhood surrounded by dogs. LOTS of dogs.
But when I first set about writing this novel, I immediately discovered how little I understood about the practicalities of breeding and training dogs. Childhood memories only took me so far when the scene involved day-to-day work—I’d done odd jobs as a kid and paid little attention to the larger process. As an adult, I’d always trained my dogs conscientiously (though not always successfully), but I’d never been interested in breeding. That’s where the research began. Over the years, I’ve accumulated a small but deep library of nonfiction books on canine physiology, behavior and training. (You can find a list of some of my favorite books on the Edgar Sawtelle website, EdgarSawtelle.com, on the Further Reading page.) Since my idea was that the Sawtelles selected dogs based as much as possible on behavior instead of physical conformation, I found myself inventing a lot of their procedures out of thin air, working back from the goal of a purely “behavioral” breed. It would make sense for them to keep careful records, I decided. They would have to raise the dogs to maturity, in order to evaluate them. And that evaluation would have to involve rigorous training.
The result is a blend of fact and fiction. As far as I know, no one raises dogs exactly the way the Sawtelles do.
What Is a Mow?
What is a mow door, or the mow mentioned so many times in your book? I am listening to the audio version and have tried looking up the word but am unable to find anything. LOVE your writting style and story. Thank you.
Hi, Rita, thanks for your question. The hay mow (rhymes with "cow", not "low") is the upper floor of a barn, normally used for storing grain, hay and straw. In a working dairy farm, the cattle are housed in stalls on the first floor and daily chores would involve someone climbing into the mow, usually via a ladder built into an inside wall, opening a hatch in the mow floor and throwing down bales to be cut open and distributed to the cattle.
A mow has to be loaded periodically, of course, so all barns are designed with some sort of large door on the upper floor. A contraption known as a bale elevator (a sort of motorized ramp) lifts bales from the ground or a wagon into the mow. The exact style and placement of the mow door varies widely, but in the case of the Sawtelle's barn, it is on the end wall facing the yard, hinged so that it opens outward and located directly above the double-doors on the ground-level entrance. When Edgar swings the mow door open, all that appears before him is open air.
As previously mentioned, the Sawtelle barn and land are modeled after my parents’ farm in central Wisconsin. I’m a suburbanite nowadays, but something about growing up around one particular barn (now torn down and long gone) has left a permanent impression on me. I find myself slowing down when I drive past farms, especially to check out the barn. On a drive through central Wisconsin last week, I found myself oogling barns and weaving all over the (thankfully unoccupied) country road I was on. Eventually I had to stop and take a few pictures just to get it out of my system.
Was Almondine "The Chosen One"?
Our group had a few questions. One: Almondine, being a Sawtelle dog, was never bred. She was the only dog to serve the family in the house as a "pet." And, that being the case, appears to be far superior in "stock" to the other dogs, as a "chosen one." Knowing her purpose was Edgar appeared only when Edgar was born. Did Gar have the foresight to position Almondine so well in advance, or did she just become the family pet?
Hi, Peggy. I’ve always imagined that Gar and Trudy selected Almondine as the house dog based only on what they saw in her as a pup—something in the way she looked at them, the chemistry of their interactions with her—not because they somehow knew Almondine would devote herself to their as yet unborn son. The choice was pure intuition on their part.
Almondine is a great dog, no question about it, but I don’t necessarily think of her as "far superior" to the others. She embodies a certain kind of genius, as do Tinder and Baboo, for example. And, certainly, Essay. Each are distinct individuals, though, and I wouldn’t necessarily select any one of them as universally better than the others. What makes Almondine special in this story is that she has found her ideal match in the human world, and through her, readers see (I hope) what any of the dogs might be capable of.
As for your other point, it is true that Almondine was never bred. This reflects a writerly concern of mine—though I considered such a thing early on (specifically, that Almondine be the mother of Edgar’s litter) I didn’t think I could introduce that element into the story without diluting the relationship between Edgar and Almondine, which was all-important. I decided it would be sufficient for Almondine to be a sort of second mother to all the pups through the training.
Why Did You Include the Real Story of Hachiko?
When John Sawtelle was looking for special dogs to breed, he spent a great deal of time corresponding with dog owners, lovers, breeders. I know the Sawtelle dogs had a genetic connection to Hachiko; I know Hachiko's story is NOT fiction; and I know that Hachiko was an Akita. Why didn't you identify the breed? And why did you include Hachiko? I just loved your book. Thanks so much for writing it.
Hello, Anne. Yes, as you say, Hachiko was a real dog and an Akita. I first learned about Hachiko back in the mid-1990s when I was doing early research for The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. The more I read, the more amazed I became, if only because I’d never heard of Hachiko before. I decided to find a way to include him, somehow, in the story. And so the basic facts of Hachiko's life (that he accompanied his owner, Professor Ueno, to the Shibuya train station in Tokyo each day, and met him there again each afternoon; that Professor Ueno died suddenly at the university; that Hachiko continued to come to the train station to greet his master for years afterward; that a statue in the dog’s honor was erected at the station even while he was still alive) are suggested in some of the letters Edgar finds, though I embroidered upon those events to tie them to Edgar's immediate predicament.
I didn't mention that Hachiko was an Akita only because it didn't seem important for the story—John Sawtelle drew on many breeds to create the Sawtelle dogs, and what was significant was Hachiko's astonishing devotion, not his breed credentials. That, and the fact that John Sawtelle was sly and inventive enough to somehow wrangle a puppy from Hachiko's bloodline after reading about his situation in a newspaper.
By the way, 2008 has been a great year for Hachiko devotees. Besides his appearance in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Hachiko is mentioned in Martha Sherrill's superb book Dog Man, a biography of the man credited with rescuing the Akita breed from extinction after World War II. Hachiko is also the subject of a forthcoming motion picture, Hachiko: A Dog's Story, directed by Lasse Halström and starring Richard Gere and Joan Allen.
An excellent starting point to learn more about Hachiko is the Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hachiko.
What's the Significance of the White Spot on the Grass?
I love, love, love this book. I always enjoy Oprah's picks, however this book surprised me in a good way. We are talking in our book club about some of the symbolism in the novel. Can you help explain the significance of the white spot of dead grass where the syringe fell?
Jill, thanks for your question. In my experience, story elements that look like symbolism often have their origins in the ordinary course of writing, and that’s the case here.
That white spot arises, of course, from the single dry crystal of poison in the syringe that Edgar discovers in the work room. After the syringe is accidentally crushed, and the crystal dissolved in rainwater, it could have just soaked into the ground and been forgotten. In fact, during early drafts of the novel, that is exactly what happened—the important thing, for me, was that no physical evidence remain. I wanted Edgar to have to act in the absence of proof. But during the final drafts, it also occurred to me that, potent as it is, even a tiny bit of that poison would leave a mark on the world. That in turn opened the question of what such a mark might be. The answer that made sense to me was not any straightforward sign of poison, or death, but of inexplicable strangeness, of half-life, which was in keeping with Edgar’s experience. A white dandelion appeared in my imagination.
This is typical of how writing works for me. I don’t plot things out ahead of time in great detail. Instead, I set a direction and write toward it. Certain elements tossed in during early drafts become increasingly significant as I revise (and certain other elements lose power and fade away). In this case, every time I reexamined that passage, I wondered: “What about that crystal in the syringe? Why was it there? What happened to it anyway? Is it in the groundwater—in the well? Is it in the creek? Has it been neutralized somehow? Is it just plain gone?” Since I couldn’t shake the question (I tried), I had to answer it.
When that white dandelion appeared in my imagination, it struck me as just the right “residue”—a ghostly plant. I also knew Edgar would find the mark and interpret it as evidence that he hadn’t simply imagined everything, despite being awash in the mundane details of the everyday world. Knowing Edgar, I knew he would obsess about that white spot, conclude it was a stain on his world, try to eliminate it. More importantly, I knew it would give Edgar a tiny bit of tangible evidence of what happened to his father—but evidence only to Edgar.
Many such story details appeared during the initial writing, were propagated throughout the story in the middle drafts and settled into place during the final revision. Mostly, readers don’t (and shouldn’t) notice those details, but they are essential to long-form fiction, each one a strand in the braid that holds the novel together. Only a few—like the white patch—are ever intentionally in the foreground.
Who Is the Old Man in Henry's Shed?
Thanks for taking time to read my note. My book club just finished your novel, which we all loved. We enjoyed one of the best discussions we've ever had. There are a number of questions from the group, but here we would love to hear from you regarding who is the old man in Henry's shed? Some were wondering if it's Edgar's grandfather? Thanks again for reading my note. We will eagerly await novel #2!
Hello, Serene, thanks for your question, and thanks to your book club for selecting Edgar to read and discuss. Point blank, the old man in the shed is simply the man who lived in Henry’s house before Henry. He’s no relation to either Henry or Edgar, but I see him as integral to the story.
I once heard the critic Roger Ebert deconstruct the Coen brothers film Fargo. In the middle of that movie, there is a scene in which the very pregnant Marge (the police chief, played by Frances McDormand) meets an old high school acquaintance for a drink at her hotel in Minneapolis. The acquaintance tells her that his wife died from a lingering illness, breaks down in tears, then tries to switch sides of the booth to sit next to Marge, apparently to put his arm around her. After a few strained minutes of conversation, she bids him good night and leaves. As they played it, the scene is immensely comic and weird, and becomes one of the most memorable moments in a film overflowing with memorable moments. But as far as anyone can tell, it has absolutely nothing to do with the plot. It appears to be a set piece plunked down in the midst of the larger story, and by almost any standard, it is a distraction from the kidnapping, murder and betrayal propelling the story. Ebert, responding to the idea that it was extraneous and should have been left out, waxed poetic, saying that without that scene, the whole film would lose some vital bit of strangeness that raises everything to a higher level. His argument was fun, passionate and absolutely convincing.
I feel the same way about that ghostly farmer in Henry’s shed. He has very little plot function—he could almost be snipped right out of this book—yet without him, I’m sure the story would be incomplete. For one thing, that old farmer reminds Edgar that he has been touched by strangeness, and that no matter where Edgar goes, he will always be caught between the world of the living and the world of the dead. That boundary has fallen for Edgar as it did for Hamlet, and it can never be put into place again. That old farmer is a critical, inevitable eruption of the strange in the oasis of ordinariness that is Henry Lamb’s world.
For another thing, the old farmer is a ghost of place. After decades of throwing bits and pieces of his life into the shed—ostensibly at his wife’s request, though I suspect he might be exaggerating about that—he’s ultimately thrown some part of himself in there too. In answer to an earlier question, I remarked on how long-form fiction is held together by a braid of thematic and imagistic threads, some visible, others invisible. This is another example of that principle. There are many ghosts in this book, and all of them are ghosts of place. Schultz is an obvious example, given that Edgar lives in a house with his writing on the walls and can practically see him walking out of the woods, but it is also true that Edgar’s father is portrayed early on standing in the doorway of the barn, occupying the same spot during a thunderstorm where he will eventually appear to Edgar in the rain. The story of Hachiko is also the story of a dog that returns to the same spot every day to escort the ghostly presence of Ueno home. Some purely aesthetic part of my imagination wants to argue: How could that old farmer not be in the shed?
Too, the old farmer helps clarify the stakes for Edgar, so he’s not an entirely whimsical figure. In talking about his own moment of revelation (realizing he is cursed to be good at something he doesn’t enjoy doing, while the train engineer loves what he is good at—a quality the old farmer calls “that rare thing”) something almost falls into place for Edgar. It takes a couple of days, but I believe Edgar’s decision to turn back after the climactic events on the shore of Lake Superior can be traced back to that ghost’s story. That’s why Edgar makes a point of going out to the shed on his last night in Henry’s house: to ask in the darkness whether that rare thing is in him. And really, how will he know unless he turns back?
Last of all, and most arbitrarily, I just plain like that old farmer. He’s a character right out of my childhood, one of the slightly scary, grizzled old men who hung around the feed mill arguing and telling jokes all day long. He’s not unique in that regard. There are plenty of references in this novel to people, dogs and events that no one besides my closest family would recognize. And some are entirely personal—a postcard from myself to myself, a final home on the page for some memory I’ve pointlessly carried along with me for years. That’s one of the secret satisfactions of writing fiction.
What Did Ida Paine's Premonition Refer To?
I'm confused about Ida Paine's admonition that if [Edgar] leaves, he shouldn't come back. Then she adds, "It's only wind." Was she referring to the waterspout that he shouldn't be afraid of? I think that's unlikely. Please clear up the problem with Ida Paine's prediction.
Hi, Diana. As unlikely as it might seem, Ida Paine is indeed warning Edgar about future meteorological events on Lake Superior. But then, Ida’s an oracle of the backwoods variety, and oracles are justly famous for issuing advice that is either useless or confusing, at least in the short term. And they never explain themselves. That’s an ironclad union regulation (one they share with writers, I might add, though I’m making an exception in this case).
When I think of Ida, two literary touchstones come to mind, both of which have delighted me as a reader and inspired me as a writer. The first appears in the Greek myth of Oedipus. The young Oedipus, having heard a rumor that he is adopted, asks the Oracle at Delphi to identify his biological parents. Instead of answering his question, the Oracle replies that Oedipus is destined to kill his father and sleep with his mother—a bit off topic, yes, but interesting. What she doesn’t say is that his biological father is the King of Thebes, who cast out the newborn Oedipus precisely because she, the Oracle, prophesied long ago that the baby would someday kill the king. So it’s full disclosure all around...yet things go terribly wrong. True to form, the oracle’s advice is singularly unhelpful.
Then there are the trio of witches that the warrior MacBeth meets on his way home from battle. They let it slip that he will soon replace Duncan as the King of Scotland—an event MacBeth hastens along with a knife. When he frets about being caught, MacBeth checks in with the witches again, and this time they share the idea that he can’t be killed until the forest at Birnham Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill—which, given the rate at which forests travel, MacBeth assumes won’t happen for some time. Knowing one is invincible gives one quite a lot of courage, he discovers. But despite the witches’ predictions, things once again go terribly wrong. From this we conclude that MacBeth slept through his English classes when they studied Oedipus Rex.
One last stray thought: You could make the argument that Ida is in some sense Edgar’s opposite. She speaks without understanding what she means, while Edgar understands things about which he cannot speak. That accounts, at least in part, for their mutual fascination.
What Inspired You to Use the Chequamegon National Forest in Your Book?
Greetings from the edges of the Chequamegon National Forest! It was such a genuine pleasure to read your story. Your book resonates with the ambience of the area at the time of your tale. It is a beautifully lyrical and well-crafted story. I loved it. Your descriptions ring so true I found myself looking for the places of Edgar Sawtelle...even though I know he is a fictional character.
Hi, Sandra, it’s good to hear from someone from “up Nort,” as we used to say back home. As you noted, I was born in the suburbs of Milwaukee, but I was barely a toddler when my parents bought a small dairy farm and moved us. So home, for me, is a small farm outside Pittsville, Wisconsin, population 600 or so when I was growing up. That’s smack in the center of the state, and about 100 miles from you. If I got the sense of the land right in Edgar’s story, it is mainly due to a childhood tramping around in the woods of central Wisconsin, augmented by plenty of excursions to Mellen and environs.
I live in rural Bayfield County mere miles from the Chequamegon National Forest and have a humble cabin just north of Glidden. Ahhh, yes! The Mellen town hall does have a cupola! I couldn't shake thinking about Popcorn Corners, so I Googled it a month after I finished the book. Whoa! Google locates it 1/2 mile from my cabin. So, my question is—Chequamegon National Forest is large and a fair distance from Pewaukee, so what areas were your inspiration and in what context did you experience the area? You captured the spirit so beautifully.
Popcorn Corners made it into Edgar’s story because the name appears in tiny print on my USGS map of the area, a map that has hung on my wall throughout the writing of the book. Early on, during one of my camping trips to explore the Chequamegon, I made a special outing to visit Popcorn Corners. To my astonishment, all I found was an empty intersection. There was nothing there, and no sign anything ever had been there.
Well, what could be more fun for a writer? We spend our time inventing all sorts of things out of thin air, but rarely does the world hand us freebie: a town that exists only on a map, a name without a place. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up. I thought back on all the trips we’d taken to the local grocery when I was a kid (this, in a little crossroads town that really does exist), and I thought about how vaguely menacing the place seemed, being poorly lit, with squeaking floorboards and a butcher shop in back. Pretty soon Popcorn Corners had an even more run-down grocery and a tavern and some wild chickens in the culverts.
I honestly don’t remember if Ida came before the grocery story, or whether the store made it possible for Ida to exist. I suspect it was the latter. I tend to believe that a place creates its people, and not the reverse.
Why Was Edgar Infatuated with the Commune Girl?
When I finished reading Edgar, I felt a great sense of loss or sadness. I understand that it is a tragedy, but I have some unanswered questions regarding Edgar’s infatuation with the commune girl who he was infatuated with. What was the purpose of her character as it never developed into anything in the story?
Hi, Lauren. The answer to your question has to do with Part 4 of this story, when Edgar is wandering in the Chequamegon forest. As I think of Edgar, it’s not in his nature to simply run away from something; he also needs to run toward something else. And so, because at first he is simply fleeing through the woods, he stumbles from place to place without ever really getting anywhere.
Sometimes a person doesn’t know what they are thinking until they blurt it out, at which point they discover that the idea has been percolating through their minds for a while. That’s the way it is with Edgar in Part 4. When events finally force him to choose a destination, Edgar names the only place in the larger world that’s ever interested him: Starchild Colony.
During the writing, Starchild Colony was a mighty interesting place to me, too, and I was tempted to set a few scenes there just to make it real, both to myself and to the reader. I decided against that for two reasons. First, I knew since Edgar was never going to get all the way to Starchild. Any scenes set there would have seemed odd and pointless in the end. Second, I quickly learned that I didn’t need to portray the physical reality of the place as much as its spirit, and that I could do better with a character calling, so to speak, from offstage. That’s how Alexandra Honeywell came to be. She is the nearly-disembodied voice of Starchild Colony, a place that promises both refuge from an incomprehensible world and the possibility of a fresh start. So I think of Alexandra as essential to the story—as developing into something, as you say—even though Edgar never meets her. Without Alexandra, there is no Starchild Colony, and without Starchild Colony as a beacon, Edgar might never have had a destination.
The paradox here, I realize, is that Edgar’s choice of Starchild is only the catalyst for a even truer choice. There’s only one place he belongs, and it lies behind him, not ahead. That’s what he discovers during the storm on the shore of Lake Superior. But he has to make some choice before he can recognize what the right choice truly is.
What Is the Relationship Between Claude and Forte?
Mr. Wroblewski, I read your book and absolutely loved it. Edgar Sawtelle is my favorite book of 2008. I'm just unclear on the relationship between Forte and Claude. Is the current Forte a descendant of the Forte in the photo with Claude? Did Claude kill the original Forte and then want to kill the current dog based on the memories of the first one?
Hi, Kathryn, thanks for your enthusiasm and your question. Like Edgar, readers have mostly circumstantial evidence to go on regarding Claude, his history and his motivations. That’s to Claude’s liking, of course: He’s most comfortable in muddy waters, and when they aren’t muddy, he got a knack for making them so. He likes to talk to people one-on-one, where he can’t be overheard, and though he doesn’t mind if there’s a healthy dose of liquor involved, Claude’s real drug of choice is the persuasive half-truth, administered when the recipient seems most susceptible. This is not revealed in full until the scenes with Glen Papineau late in the book, but it begins early, when Claude first tells Edgar his story about the original Forte.
And, to be clear, there are two distinct dogs named Forte. The Forte in Edgar’s present life is simply a stray, not related to the Forte that existed in his father’s day. Edgar names the stray Forte because, though he doubts some elements of Claude’s tale immediately and intuitively, he sees the parallels to the present-day situation as well. It’s also important to keep in mind that in Claude’s version of past events, it is Gar who taught the original Forte to jump into his arms and Gar who shoots him. The photograph that Edgar finds later shows a dog jumping into Claude’s arms—circumstantial evidence that Edgar was right to suspect Claude of shuffling the facts. But why would Claude have lied about original Forte if he knew that Gar was right there and could easily contradict him? Again, the story doesn’t say directly, and it might just be a preemptive denial of a story he’s afraid will come up. But I view Claude as usually working several angles at once, so consider also that one way of gaining someone’s confidence is to tell them a secret, something awful, something that, possibly, the parties involved would not want told. Never mind if it is true or not.
As for why Claude wants to kill, or at least drive away, the present-day Forte, Claude seems to me, as he does to Trudy, a fiercely territorial person—what he has, he wants to keep. By the same token, he wouldn’t welcome competition for something desired but not yet attained, and perhaps at some level Claude views Forte as competition—irrational, of course, but (I hope) plausible. Also, Claude does not particularly like to be reminded of his past. If he sees the stray as such a reminder, he’d have another reason to wish it gone.
To me, what’s most telling about the episode between Claude and Forte is not that he tries to shoot the stray when he gets a chance, but that when he fails, he doesn’t simply lower his gun. He turns instead on something innocent nearby.
How Did Almondine Die?
Hi, David. I thoroughly enjoyed your book. I spent every available minute reading it and finished it in three days. I've always loved animals and understood the strong bonds developing throughout the book. My question is about how Almondine died. Others think she was hit by a car, and I will go back and read that part again, but is that what happened? Originally, I assumed she had died of a broken heart. Thank you for a great read.
Hello, Heidi. You aren't the first to ask this question, and in the past when it has come up my reaction has always been to provide the "correct" interpretation—meaning, what I was thinking about the objective facts of that moment during the writing. But I'm going to give you a slightly roundabout answer, since Almondine's final chapter was designed to be subjective and impressionistic—perhaps the most extreme such example in the book—and as I'm writing to you, I find that I don't want to (or maybe can't) approach those events any other way.
Here is what I can say. By the time that chapter comes around, Almondine exists in a state where the literal and figurative, the subjective and objective, the past, present and future, all intersect. She lives balanced between sorrow and hope, waiting and acting, and she has to make a choice. In my experience, a brokenhearted dog will simply lie down and not move. A dog with some degree of hope about the world will be up and looking around. Almondine chooses the latter. She begins to search, not just for Edgar but for a solution to the whole quandary of being without Edgar, about being separated from one's purpose in life, which is something larger and more profound than physical separation—and a question that Edgar himself happens to be grappling with at that moment. So I can't agree that Almondine dies of a broken heart. She's acting too much on her own behalf for that to be true.
However, I'd also point out that Almondine has always had a singular ability to intuit where Edgar is going to be. At some level she knows "(bright flames)" where she will find him and has concluded that if he can't come to her, she can go to where he will eventually be. When she steps onto the road, asking her question and solving her problem become one and the same.
Is It Safe to Give Tylenol to Animals?
Did you realize that Tylenol is extremely toxic to dogs?
Hi, Deborah, the question of Tylenol toxicity has come up several times lately. Of course, no one should administer human medication to their pet without veterinary supervision, and certainly not on the basis of a scene in a novel! That said, I wanted to verify that my original research on this topic was correct, so I contacted my veterinarian, who put me in touch with Dr. James Gaynor of Peak Performance Veterinary Group in Colorado Springs. Dr. Gaynor is a board-certified veterinary anesthesiologist, a Diplomate of the American Academy of Pain Management and a certified veterinary acupuncturist.
Love the book, I love the way that Edgar talks to the dogs with his mind first and then his hands. He is emotionally much more like the dogs than he is people. I know what it feels like to "think" like the dogs and be one with them.
Here's what Dr. Gaynor had to say:
"Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is well tolerated in dogs at appropriate doses. It has been shown to induce liver toxicity at high doses or if administered for long periods of time. This is the reason that many dog owners and veterinarians are scared of Tylenol use. Assuming that the dog in the story weighs about 100 pounds (45 kg) and the Tylenol is regular strength (325 mg/caspule), the dog in the book would have received 625 mg—about 14 mg of Tylenol per kilogram of body weight. This is within the currently accepted dose of 10 to 15 mg /kg orally two to three times daily for five days at a time.
This is very different in cats, which develop toxicity because of their inability to excrete the metabolites, which are the byproducts of liver metabolism."
The upshot of this is twofold. Most importantly, cats should never, under any circumstances, be given Tylenol. But Tylenol can and has been used with dogs. The two-tablet dosage described in the book would not have harmed Tinder, both because it is within range for Tinder's body weight and because it was a one-time event.
Who Were the Three Griefs of Part 2?
What or who were the Three Griefs of Part 2? I kept looking for three events but now believe maybe the three griefs were what Edgar, Trudy and Almondine experienced at Gar's death.
Hi, Lauren, your second interpretation is right on the money: the title refers not to specific moments or events, but to how Trudy, Edgar and Almondine experience grief over time.
When I wrote that section, I was especially interested in the twin ideas of grief and haunting, since I imagined that Part 2 would begin with a funeral and end with a ghost. I didn’t have well-formed thoughts on the matter, just an intuition that these two experiences had something in common. For example, both grief and haunting tend to isolate a person. Grief is often accompanied by the desire to withdraw, to not commit to anything so that it can’t be lost too. The essential weirdness of a haunting sets the hauntee apart from the rest of the world, even people close to them. To be haunted is to be singled out, separated from the pack. There’s a feeling in both cases that no one else can possibly understand what one is going through, and that to try to explain it would be hopeless. And both grief and haunting can be slightly narcissistic: you might be in a very dark world, but you are at the center of that world. Hamlet’s grief is initially portrayed this way, disproportionate to the circumstances and self-indulgent. While he claims, "I have within that which passeth show," Claudius dismisses it with: "To persever/In obstinate condolement is a course/Of impious stubbornness...'tis a fault to heaven/A fault against the dead, a fault to nature/To reason most absurd: whose common theme/Is death of fathers." Claudius has an agenda, we know, but he’s correct, if overly dispassionate.
By the way, an interesting book to read in this regard is C S Lewis’ A Grief Observed, a remarkable account of Lewis’s state of mind after his wife died from bone cancer in 1960. I first encountered it while drafting Part 2. Joan Didion’s highly acclaimed The Year of Magical Thinking is also beautiful and harrowing (though not a research source for me). What I took away from both is how particularly grief manifests itself. Grief is not a uniform experience with a reliable set of symptoms, but a sort of pall that entwines itself in the smallest perceptions and emotions of the sufferer.
Did Classic Stories Inspire You While Writing This Book?
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.
Printed from Oprah.com on Thursday, June 20, 2013
© 2012 Harpo Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.