The Story of Edgar Sawtelle Webcast Transcript
David: The idea that a story, a complex story, could be broken down the way a stage play is broken down into acts. Which—which is not a particularly insightful thing. It was a big deal for me in that moment as someone who is sort of approaching this project.
Oprah: Because that gave you a beginning, that gave you a foundation, that gave you something from which to begin the process.
David: Right. I understood structure because of that.
David: Or at least enough to begin. Although, most of the details of this story I did not—I had no clue about when I began. I knew what the feeling of the general arc of the story was.
Oprah: And what was that?
David: I had a feeling about where I was going to go. I understood that it was a tragic arc. I understood that in the—in the center, toward the end of the story, Edgar would leave the farm but that most of the—most of the story would—would take place on the farm and the farm would act as a kind of stage.
David: With sort of, even in my mind then I was thinking in terms of stage lighting and so on.
Oprah: Don't you all just love this process? I mean, I'm like you. I love—again, every author's process is different.
Oprah: And so then would you write every day?
David: I tried. I tried. Although I don't have—I'm not one of those writers who has almost sort of military discipline about it and do a thousand words a day and so on. I tend to go in bursts, and particularly first draft. For me, first draft is very different than subsequent drafts, and this book has gone through something on the order of drafts. So the first draft is when the material is going to come out, it's going to come out whatever time of day that is. When I was working full time, it was mainly in the evenings for some reason.
David: Later drafts, as I was revising, I tended to do those more in the morning or in the afternoon.
Oprah: Now do the characters, are you, you know, sitting methodically writing passages for them? Or do the characters sort of visit you or live with you? I mean I've talked to other authors who, you know, it works both ways.
David: Yeah. For me, I feel like I'm having a conversation with the book itself. But not with any particular character. One of the things that I learned from the world of software is that when you get something partially made, it begins to give you a lot of information back about what it can be or can't be. What it's going to be good at. What, if you want it to be something that it's not being good at, how hard you're going to have to work to unwind it and start over and send it off in a new direction. And that experience with software also translated for me into writing. A half-written book begins to push back in very interesting ways.
Oprah: Begins to push back.
David: Yeah, it pushes back.
Oprah: Do the characters after a while then start to tell their own story?
David: The—I wouldn't—I don't think of it as individual characters.
David: For instance, you know sometimes you hear writers say, "This character came in from out of nowhere and took over."
David: Never my experience.
Oprah: Never your experience.
David: My experience was that at certain points the story demanded that certain kinds of action took place.
David: That certain scenes were long enough or not long enough but it wasn't based on the characters' personality, per se. With a couple of exceptions. Henry is the exception. We'll talk about that.
David: But most of the time, it was the book as a whole—my experience was it was the book as a whole saying, "You know, this section is perhaps too comedic." Because my tendency is to—is to—to gesture toward comedy. Not tragedy when I'm writing. And so I would have to rein that in a lot and take some of that material out.
Oprah: Wow. Karen from Vermont. Hi, Karen. You're on the phone. Hi.
Karen: Hi, Oprah.
Karen: Hi, David.
David: Hi, Karen.
Karen: My question has to do with Almondine, and I'm just interested in the way that you personified her in the story.
Karen: Almondine seemed to be one of the most intelligent and enlightened characters in the story, and I was wondering if that was intentional on your part.
Oprah: And was Almondine based on any dog you ever had or knew?
David: She's not. Okay. So, Almondine was a character, and this is an example of a surprise for me. Almondine was a character that didn't have her own perspective in the story until the first draft was about half done.
David: And the first draft of this book was written in first person from Edgar's point of view. And I got about to the middle of the book and I realized—I didn't understand what was going on, but all of a sudden I was realizing I couldn't go forward and I actually stopped writing on the book for about a year. And what was actually happening was I was discovering that I couldn't go forward purely in Edgar's point of view. And the first time I discovered that was I sat down one day and I wrote the first Almondine chapter, and it was this anomalous experience. Here I had this book where Edgar is talking about "me" and "I" and all these things that have happened and he's thinking back on, and all of a sudden there's this chapter from Almondine's point of view, and it happened—that was written in a day or two, and the chapter that is in the final form of the book is virtually unchanged from that first draft, which is true of very little of the rest of the book. The rest of the book has been edited a lot over and over.